Ndamukong Suh: Detroit's Dirtiest, or Most Unfairly Treated Player?

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Ndamukong Suh: Detroit's Dirtiest, or Most Unfairly Treated Player?
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The video still exists, if you nose around You Tube long enough. The craggy old basketball announcer screams into his microphone, crying of the humanity of it all to his radio listeners, in the same vein as Herb Morrison did in describing the explosion of the Hindenburg.

“Oh, the way they do things here!” Johnny Most screamed to his Boston listeners. Video cameras caught Most, pounding his hand onto the press table.

The Pistons had committed another rough foul on the Celtics. It was during a tense (weren’t they all?) playoff game at the Silverdome.

“Oh, (Bill) Laimbeer! What a gutless, despicable player!” Most shrieked.

Pistons thuggery!

These were the Bad Boys days of the late-1980s, and this was Johnny Most, riling up his listeners with another embellished version of what actually was happening on the basketball court. Fortunately for radio announcers, there isn’t a video screen accompanying the words.

The Bad Boys Pistons of Isiah, Laimbeer, Mahorn, Rodman et al wore the black hats in the NBA, and with pride. There was the Rolling Stone magazine cover, featuring Laimbeer and Mahorn, squeezing a basketball into deflation and terrorizing a rim for the photographer.

Everywhere the Pistons went, bad press followed them. They came to your town like the villains in a Spaghetti Western—daring local law enforcement to do something to stop them. They were the Dirty Dozen, literally.

The joke was on the critics and the out-of-town radio announcers. The more people complained about the Pistons’ style of rough, physical play, the more it steeled the Bad Boy—and the more steeled they were, the better they played. And the more games they won.

The Bad Boys won two straight NBA championships, even though Isiah Thomas declared the Bad Boys an expired moniker in the White House in celebrating the first title in early-1990.

The Bad Boys Pistons aren’t alone when it comes to Detroit athletes who have earned the scorn of others around the country—and in Canada.

Bob Probert, goon extraordinaire, was the NHL’s heavyweight champion, but in the way that the wrestling people do it. Probert was the NHL’s heel, to use a pro wrestling term. He was the guy everyone was gunning for. He wore the belt.

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There were the Red Wings, and there was Probert. He was in a league of his own. Probert ruled with his fists. He took on all comers. Such was his reputation of fighting prowess that when the hometown goon even landed a punch, that guy’s fans went wild. Then Probert would get an arm free and moments later, the fight was over.

Probert wasn’t considered dirty, per se, but he wasn’t always clean, either.

Probert reminded some old-timers of Gordie Howe, because Gordie wasn’t above slipping in an elbow or a face wash when the guys in the zebras weren’t looking. Even when they were looking, Gordie still managed to inflict some extracurricular pain.

Ndamukong Suh is the latest Detroit sports star who is on the top of his league’s Most Wanted list.

Suh plays the game of football with an angry edge. He’s a rules bender. He’s another football player whose personality is that of Jekyll and Hyde—sweet as pie with kids, soft spoken with the media, but diabolical and maybe a tad deranged on the gridiron every Sunday.

That’s what they said about past mad men like Alex Karras and Dick Butkus—that off the field they were the nicest guys, humble even, but for 60 minutes every Sunday, they turned nasty.

Suh’s reputation precedes him like a man who had a Limburger and garlic sandwich for lunch.

Suh hits someone and the play gets analyzed like it’s the Zapruder film. Surely there must be something wrong!

The league has fined Suh almost continuously since he came into the league as a rookie from Nebraska in 2010. Some of the disciplinary action—suspensions and fines—have been warranted. Others have been “reputation” punishment.

“I think there’s always going to be a microscope on me,” Suh said recently.

More like a Hubble telescope.

Suh’s latest fine, a $31,500 debit for hitting Cleveland Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden last Sunday, is laughable. But it’s not really funny.

Suh rushed the quarterback, as he does so well, and while he led with his helmet, kind of, it was Suh’s body that slammed Weeden to the turf just after the Browns QB released a pass. It was a hit that defines professional football—clean and hard, with no malice other than to put the quarterback on his keister.

There was no penalty flag on the play, even though it occurred right in front of the referee.

For that hit, the NFL fined Suh.

The telescope got brought out again.

The league has its Jason and its Freddy Krueger, in Ndamukong Suh. And don’t think that they don’t love that idea.

Pro sports are often as much about who fans root against as it is who they root for. No doubt that the NBA profited from the Bad Boys, financially and from a publicity standpoint. There was more licensed merchandise derived from it, and more tickets were sold in enemy arenas when the Bad Boys rode into town.

The NFL and those who cover it decry Suh on one hand, and can’t stop talking about him on the other. They want Suh to go straight publicly, but privately they seem terrified of that.

So what you get are fines that wouldn’t be levied on other players. The fine for the Weeden hit was a disgrace.

Suh is having an exemplary year. His play on the field has been fierce, as usual, but even better than what we’ve seen since he entered the league. He tosses around blockers like rag dolls and opens up space for his teammates to make plays.

As far as the NFL's marketing department in concerned—along with the conjunction of the disciplinarians—he is also the league's biggest villain.

Lots of what has been done to Suh’s pocketbook hasn’t seemed fair. Some of what he’s done on the field hasn’t been, either.

But nobody should want, honestly, for Suh to change the way he plays. The fans shouldn’t, the press shouldn’t, and the NFL shouldn’t.

Where’s the fun—and the money—in that?

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