Athletes Are Role Models

Unless you ignore professional sports and all major news outlets you have likely heard about Ndamukong Suh’s ejection from the NFL game between the Lions and Packers on Thanksgiving Day. Suh, a defensive tackle for the Lions, was tangled up with Packer’s guard Evan Dietrich-Smith. Nothing unusual about that. As he was getting up, however, Suh pushed Dietrich-Smith’s helmet into the ground a couple of times and then stomped on his arm. This is not the first time that Suh has been in trouble with the NFL; according to the league, Suh has violated their on-field rules five times since joining the league last year. It is the first time that he will be suspended, though–NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has suspended Suh for two games. This behavior, by the way, comes after a recent meeting between Suh and Goodell, held at Suh’s request after receiving several penalties, and after which Suh said he had a better understanding of NFL rules.

After the game, Suh spoke to reporters and, in my opinion, was not apologetic for his actions. Here’s what he had to say: “I’m first and foremost only going to apologize to my teammates, my coaches and my true fans for allowing the refs to have an opportunity to take me out of this game. What I did was remove myself from the situation in the best way I felt, me being held down in the situation I was in. And further, my intentions were not to kick anybody, as I did not, removing myself as you see, I’m walking away from the situation and with that I apologize to my teammates and my fans and my coaches for putting myself in the position to be misinterpreted and taken out of the game.”

My problems with Suh’s statement are several. He said that he was apologizing only to his teammates, coaches and “true fans.” In other words, he was not apologizing to Mr. Dietrich-Smith, or to the NFL for violating its rules, or to anyone who is not one of his “true fans.” Furthermore, even then he was only apologizing for putting himself in a situation to “allow the refs…to take [him] out of the game.” That sounds an awful lot like avoiding responsibility at worst or saying he is sorry he got caught, at best. The implication is that the officials were looking for an excuse to eject him. And that, quite frankly, is incredibly self-centered. In response to a question specifically asking whether or not he intentionally stepped on Dietrich-Smith, Suh said, “Not by any means.”

Suh is an outstanding football player–he was the 2010 Defensive Rookie of the Year–and he is being well compensated for his play–his rookie contract included $40 million guaranteed. But the bottom line is that he has to follow the rules like everyone else, and he has to accept the consequences if and when he does not. And Ndamukong Suh is responsible for Ndamukong Suh, no one else is.

I have a great deal of respect for Tony Dungy, former head coach of the Buccaneers and the Colts, and I agree with him when he said that the Detroit Lions and their coach, Jim Schwartz, should have taken it upon themselves to address Suh’s overly-aggressive play and thus possibly prevented this from happening. Any good coach should address inappropriate actions by any player. I respectfully disagree with Mr. Dungy, however, when he says that he “has to fault the Detroit organization.” While the team in general and the coach in particular should have addressed Suh’s behavior, the fact that they did not–if, in fact, they did not–does not excuse Suh for what he did. And I specify if they did not because, frankly, I don’t know if they did or not. Maybe Tony Dungy knows they didn’t. But I would like to think that perhaps Him Schwartz has addressed Suh and told him to play within the rules–and that he did it appropriately and without drawing attention to it. But like I said, either way, it is a side issue, not the issue.

All of this, by the way, got me thinking about Charles Barkley’s famous statement in the 1990’s that he was not a role model. He was a basketball player–and a good one–but he did not want the responsibility of being a role model, of having to consider that kids look at his actions on the court (or off) and emulate him. The reality, though, is that being a role model isn’t a choice–for athletes or for anyone else. Everyone of us, if we are alive, are role models for those we are in contact with. People watch what we do and listen to what we say. We are role models–of what to do or what not to do. Charles Barkley was, and Ndamukong Suh is. None of us has the privilege of living, speaking or acting on a (figurative) island or in a vaccuum; none of us can opt to have others ignore our actions.

Please don’t think I am singling out Mr. Suh. He is not the first athlete to behave in a manner than violates the rules, and he will not be the last. His actions are more egregious than some and less egregious than others. And I am certainly not judging him from a position of on-field perfection myself. I have been known to get a bit too competitive on the softball field and, to my chagrin, I also have to confess to being ejected from a baseball game when I was in the eighth grade for throwing my bat and helmet in response to what I was convinced was a poor call by the umpire on a second consecutive at-bat. So I’m not judging Suh, I’m simply using his recent behavior to highlight the fact that what professional athletes do does influence those who are watching–especially those who are young and impressionable. But I am also highlighting the fact that you don’t have to make millions of dollars or be on TV in front of millions of people to have your behavior be influential. Athletes are role models. We all are.