Everyone has an opinion on Ndamukong Suh's personal foul last Thursday. Should he be suspended and if so, for how long? I'm not sure what the right answer is, but I'll spell out some principles of punishment.

For some reason people think this site is about football statistics, but it's really about articulating the un-articulated. It's about identifying that which flies under the our radar of intuition. When we identify our pre-conceived assumptions, our thinking becomes clearer. While I don't pretend to be a professor of criminal justice, I'll share some thoughts on what punishment is about.

In my mind, punishment has at least five possible purposes: incapacitation, restitution, rehabilitation, deterrent, and prevention of retribution.

While a criminal is behind bars, he cannot harm the rest of society. And while an unruly player is suspended, he is unable to harm other players or embarrass the league on the field.

When a thief steals $200 from a merchant, it makes sense that part of the punishment should include repayment of what was stolen. If a vandal defaces a school building, part of his punishment may be scrubbing the paint from the windows. Often, a crime's harm cannot be repaired directly, and other times, a crime may be against society (or in the NFL's case, an organization) as a whole. In this circumstance, general fines can be levied so that a society or an organization recoups something for the harm done to it.

Although I don't have a lot of faith in this principle, some people believe in rehabilitation, many of whom make a nice living from trying to rehabilitate other people. We don't want the offender to repeat his offense, so the punishment should be strong enough to affect the disposition of the offender enough to prevent repetition. Rehabilitation is one of those things that sound so nice and so plausible but aren't proven. You know what else sounds nice? Fairy tales. Santa Claus. Strong running games. Momentum.

By deterrent, I refer to deterring future offenders, including the perpetrator in question. The punishment should be strong enough so that the expected pain of the sentence is greater than any potential benefit of the crime. The same way we do expected utility computations for fourth down or onside kick decisions, there are expected utility values for all decisions, criminal ones included. Although people don't really think that way, incentives are critically important. They act in the heat of the moment and succumb to short-term and irrational inducements, so punishments have to be asymmetric in their severity. In other words they should be severe enough so that there is never a question as to whether it's actually worth it to commit the offense in question, even in the heat of the moment.

Prevention of retribution
Another purpose of punishment, one that I think we've lost touch with in modern society, is to prevent a cycle of vigilante retribution. The ancient verse eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth is widely understood as recommending retaliation. In tribal societies absent of a central authority, it was common for cycles of retribution to spiral out of control. If one party knocks out another's tooth, pretty soon the victim's cousins would be exacting revenge on the offender's family. I understand the verse to mean hey dummy, don't take an eye in exchange for a tooth. Knock out the other guy's tooth and let that be the end of it. Otherwise we've got the Hatsfields and McCoys, Montagues and Capulets, or Bosnians and Serbs.

Unfortunately, aggrieved parties will naturally tend to perceive their own tooth as more valuable. They'll tend to perceive accidental harm as intentional, and soon enough the cycle of escalating retribution begins. In a violent, emotional sport like football, this is a certainty. The central authority, the League in this case, must short circuit the the retribution cycle by punishing the offenders severely enough so that the victimized parties feel satisfied that justice has been done. In sports we frequently witness cycles of retribution. Pitchers plunking opposing batters or throwing at their head, hockey fights, flying elbows in basketball, and so on. What ultimately breaks cycles of retaliation is when the offenders are sternly punished.

An argument against strong punishment in Suh's case is that it was an emotional and natural reaction in the heat of battle. He may have felt that he was on the receiving end of a cheap shot while bent backwards in a vulnerable situation. But this an argument for severity, not forgiveness. The more 'natural' or 'understandable' the offense is, the more tempting it is to commit and the more likely it is to be expected in the future. To deter it, the punishment must be that much more severe, not less.

As commissioner, Roger Goodell has to take all these purposes into consideration when meting out punishment for flagrant rules violations. As contrite as an offender like Suh may sound, it's not relevant in terms of deterrent to the league as a whole.

It's critical for a violent sport like football to constrain its violence. Sometimes this might mean a punishment that seems more severe than necessary for a particular offender. But severe penalties are sometimes best for the organization as a whole. Players gripe about fines and suspensions, but the truth is every player is better off in a league that confines violence to between the whistles. They're all better off in a league that prevents head injuries and protects vulnerable players. They're all better off in a league without an image of savagery.

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17 Responses to “Punishment”

  1. Anonymous says:

    If you had included a religious reference in your list of things that sound nice that people cling to for no rational reason, I would've enjoyed it.

  2. sunrise089 says:

    @Anonymous - I think Brian might have said "scientifically testable" reason or something similar. There's a very rational region to for religion - it makes some people happy. A person married to a deeply religious spouse and who has very religious friends and who enjoys attending church is probably not acting rationally if they go out of their way to risk their faith by reading Dawkins or the like. Likewise the NFL commentator who talks about momentum entertains the semi-literate masses who leave comments on Yahoo! NFL articles that a) justify performance of all players on racial grounds and/or b) justify performance based on who "wanted it more."

    As I understand the concept of rationality that NFL commentator would be following it, even if I personally find the behavior objectionable.

  3. Jonathan says:

    That would have been pointless at best, and trollish at worst.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I just assumed religion was covered under the heading "fairy tales" :)

    Anyway, good discussion of punishment and the reasons for it. I think you are little overly skeptical about rehabilitation, especially when it comes to young offenders.

    As for Suh, the funniest thing about him is the way the media treats him. You always here phrases like "he is a great player and a beast, but..." Where the second part is about how he needs to restrain himself more (wait I thought he was a beast?). They seem to not want to acknowledge that it is just that animal aggression and violent action that make him a great player. Always running right on the edge. If you run right on the edge occasionally you will slide over, that is how running on the edge works. You cannot have Suh and have him meek and rule following, or at least it is a lot harder and not at all probable.

    I happen to know several professional athletes personally, and frankly a lot of them are hyper-competitive A-holes with no sense of the proper importance of things. But this is what makes them able to be professional athletes. If they were more normal mellow guys they never would have pushed themselves to the highest levels of what is at heart a children's game.

  5. Steven says:

    You argue that an instinctive act is harder to deter than a premeditated act, so the penalty has to be higher to achieve the same level of deterrence. But why should we necessarily balance the deterrence between instinctive and premeditated acts? If we suppose that tougher penalties carry higher inherent costs (cost of staffing prisons and preventing fathers from raising their kids; keeping the best players out of the game), it may make sense to spend more preventing the behavior that is cheaper to prevent and accept a higher level of the behavior that is expensive to deter.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Rather than provide a definition of rehabilitation that is such a thinly veiled straw-man argument, you should just have left it out altogether. I appreciate your insight into nearly everything you are blogging about, but you are revealing your limits here.

  7. Anonymous says:

    If it's such a straw man, knock it over.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Our society's rule of law should apply on the gridiron, too. There's probable cause for assault, so he should be arrested.

  9. Anonymous says:

    This reminds of criminal law class. I would add another category for punishment, which is society's "psychological satisfaction" This is sort of related to Prevention of Retribution, but a little different. If society feels there is no justice, there may not be retribution, but it may be bad for society to function. In this case, fans may be simply turned off by the NFL if there were no punishment, so in order to placate or satisfy the fans, Suh needs to be punished.

  10. Tarr says:

    The reasons I've always cited when making similar arguments about why we jail criminals were deterrence, rehabilitation, "incapacitation" (although I didn't call it that), and punishment. Punishment is, in the end, sort of a sanitized, societal version of retribution. I never mentioned restitution because in the context of most crimes that pup people in prison, it's not usually meaningful.

    Rehabilitation has a lot of value in some contexts, but I don't think this is one of them. I suspect that Suh will eventually come to realize that it was a stupid thing to do and have sincere regret that doesn't simply stem from disliking the punishment, but that will come with time and probably won't happen over the course of the next two games.

    Anyway, I'm guessing he gets a 2 game suspension, maybe 3. This wasn't nearly as malicious, to my eyes, as the Haynesworth incident, which garnered 5 games. That said, Goddell is cracking down a lot, so he might not use that punishment as a precedent.

  11. Anonymous says:

    for the record, Suh has already been punished for his actions. He was penalized on the play, and it allowed green bay to score 4 extra points.

    Additionally, he was ejected from the game (i.e. given an immediate suspension).

    Personally, I think all the fake outrage is pretty ridiculous.

  12. Steven says:

    I'm the resident director of a children's behavior modification program that routinely treats children and young adults with conduct disorder and have served time in juvenile detention facilities. Our program has been nationally recognized and has been the focus of 25 professional publications. We use operant conditioning to teach our patients socially acceptable behaviors, that will hopefully continue to be reinforced after they leave the safety of our facilities. We never use punishment as a way of deterring behavior because every behavior has a purpose. It's the frequency and the conditions during which the behavior occurs that makes it acceptable or unacceptable. For instance, picking one's nose in public, every minute of every day is a socially deviant behavior, but not when one is isolated and has something clogging it. If one were punished every time one picked their nose, it leads to other deviant behaviors to try to avoid the punishment. That's why we use 100 percent positive reinforcement. We teach them new behaviors and give them the opportunity to practice those behaviors in different environments so that they can replace the negative ones that got them to us in the first place, but not eliminate the behavior entirely and leave them vulnerable (think a Clockwork Orange). While Brian is correct that punishment is not much use as a means of rehabilitation, he fails to mention that rehabilitation can be done in a useful way. Missouri is leading the way in this form of rehabilitation while being "punished."


    As to what all this means for Suh, maybe it will give him some time to think about his actions and change his behaviors (like it did with Mike Vick and Ben Roethlisberger), or maybe he'll continue to be in a state of cognitive dissonance (Adam Jones, Albert Hanesworth, etc.)

  13. James says:

    Although I like this post overall, I'm definitely going to have to disagree about Brian's views on rehabilitation. I think there are many situations where rehabilitation is a viable option with good results, although as Steven pointed out some people seem to be lost causes.

  14. Steven says:

    Coming back to this post a day later, I think the one thing that really caused a stir in this post is the idea that rehabilitation was equated with fairy tales and santa claus and not "proven" when behavioral psychology has its roots in the work of physicians and scientists 100 years ago (Ivan Pavlov and classical conditioning), was formed into a ready to use theory and applied 70 years ago (B.F. Skinner and operant conditioning) and has been widely practiced, often to great effect, since the 60's (Metropolitan State Hospital; Massachusetts, AJ Yates at the Institute of Psychiatry, Harve Rawson at Hanover College).

  15. Butch says:

    Why was Ndamukong Suh's stomp treated as such a big deal, when Brian Robison's kick to the groin a month earlier was ignored or just laughed off? Suh was suspended two games, while Robison got a $20,000 fine. Coincidentally, a Packer was on the receiving end each time. (If you don't remember the earlier incident, try googling "robison lang".)

  16. Anonymous says:

    The NFL is the most boring stupid game on earth! Just a a bunch of dumb thugs with a shit load of money who will eventually end up in prison!!! (except for Tebow)......who with an IQ above 76.5 gives a darn!!!

  17. Dale says:

    "If you had included a religious reference in your list of things that sound nice that people cling to for no rational reason, I would've enjoyed it."

    Tim Tebow?

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