Ndamukong Suh's unsportsmanlike line
He stepped over it when he stomped on that arm last week. But what did we expect?
Ndamukong Suh will be punished this week for reading past an important set of quotation marks. In the NFL, you're paid to be seen "stomping" your opponent, not actually stomping him. This figurative distinction, while small, is vital to the autumn retail of violence in America.
Unsportsmanlike conduct? The very premise of professional football -- gaining advantage over your opponent by the sustained strategic and tactical application of great violence -- is unsportsmanlike. Remember, too, the point of pro football is not to provide a plausible simulation of violence -- it is to harness actual violence in service of entertainment. The violence is real; the game is just a game. For which we pay billions of dollars every year. And "unsportsmanlike conduct" is what you call it when that violence tips over into cruelty or brutality -- and gets caught on camera.
Clearly, all this, Mr. Suh misunderstood. He must have gone too far, because since Thanksgiving Day he's been branded everywhere as the NFL's "dirtiest player."
But how can that be? Just two short years ago, Mr. Suh won or was a finalist for nearly every honor, distinction or trophy available to a big-time college football player -- from the Chuck Bednarik to the Outland to the Lombardi. Including those emphasizing, wait for it, sportsmanship. Either his style of play has deteriorated radically in his brief professional tenure, or he's always played this way and the NFL has decided (again) that it can't be seen to endorse the eye-gouging, finger-breaking, ankle-snapping truth of its own product.
So what's a suitable punishment for doing what you've always done? Because it seems to me Mr. Suh's only failure here is in getting caught.
The same can be said of Lt. John Pike of the UC Davis Police Department, who merely acted upon his instincts and instructions to "keep the peace" when he calmly released a fog of pepper spray into the faces of some seated college students.
Again, the real problem here for Lt. Pike and for his bosses and for us all is not the act itself -- we long ago endorsed that by handing Lt. Pike the key to the weapons locker, after all -- but the recording of the act for posterity and the evening news.
So Lt. Pike is on paid administrative leave until we all figure out how we feel about what he did. UC Davis students, already certain of their feelings, have called for a general strike on campus.
Maybe they forget that the deterrent power of our police against civil disorder lies in the imminence of violence. In the same way that NFL fans forget that from whistle to whistle, professional football is best played in a state of near ecstatic rage.
This is either the cause or consequence of living in a society where Walmart shoppers are willing to pepper spray one another for a better shot at an Xbox -- on which they can play games in which their avatars pepper spray one another.
Another part of the weirdness here is that TV or YouTube obscures as many of these troubles as they reveal. For all that it exposed these two examples of gratuitous brutality, television routinely smooths violence out. Flattens it. Shortens it. Repackages it. Every network football broadcast attenuates the incredible violence in the design of the game. The truth of that violence can only be understood by standing in it.
The same goes for being maced or Tased or hit with a nightstick. Every newscast somehow reframes violence as 15 seconds of jump-cut b-roll from some distant, dusty street; or as the dinnertime preview for tonight's episode of "Hawaii 5-0."
Still, we all saw Ndamukong Suh stomp that guy, didn't we?
For that breach of the peace, the matter has been referred to the office of Roger Goodell, pro football's conscience and Great Blond Father. (It is worth noting that the commissioner's office for this violent entertainment spends a great deal of its time punishing both violence and entertainment.)
If you want to keep yourself up nights, try to reconcile what you know of the NFL and that multibillion dollar gladiator racket with William T. Vollmann's "Rising Up and Rising Down," the definitive work in English on the nature of violence. Spend a Sunday reading one while watching the other. If reason is our human inheritance, then so is cruelty. The moral calculus of which is mind-bending.
Both Pike and Suh were "caught" only because what they did was seen and recorded. But how many times have they transgressed without being seen? How often has their violence tipped over into brutality? Cruelty? Have they always been bullies? Have they always played dirty? Who are they? Bad men? Or good men pushed too far?
Which of these men, of these identities, is real? The man who adheres at all times to a strict code of conduct, but finds himself carried past it in a moment of anger or fear? Or the sociopath who lives distant from the rest of us but feigns obedience to convention in order to dish out some hurt?
Both? Neither? Or does it all play out along some continuum of human weakness?
Ndamukong Suh of the Detroit Lions and Lt. John Pike of the UC Davis Police were asked to defend something. They did so. But both broke the "rules" and crossed implied lines of behavior. Is the fault theirs? Or does the blame lie with those who arbitrarily draw the lines?
Are these lines drawn to protect the players? The bosses? Or the conceits and sensibilities of a modern audience? Is it even possible to lay artificial borders around real violence? Worst of all, in laying these lines, do we wash our hands of something? By elaborating rules governing the conduct of cruelty, do we believe ourselves absolved?
For having done too well exactly what we expected of them, Ndamukong Suh and Lt. John Pike must now be punished.
They await a judgment. As do we all.
Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.