The curious cases of Ndamukong Suh and Blake Griffin
Ndamukong Suh and Blake Griffin were each widely popular while they were still in college. Both were top picks of forlorn franchises (the L.A. Clippers and Detroit Lions) whose sorry play had earned them ‘punch-line’ status in their respective leagues. Each franchise has resurrected from the ashes, and their young superstars have been catalysts for their rapid improvement.
There’s one other interesting similarity between the two – each one was marketed heavily right out of the gate, and landed significant endorsement deals early in their careers. Suh is a paid spokesman for Nike, Chrysler, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Omaha Steaks. Griffin has been ubiquitous as automaker Kia’s main pitchman; he has also appeared in commercials for Nike, Doritos, Red Bull, AT&T, and Vizio. Both are on Subway’s ever-expanding roster of athlete endorsers.
Despite Suh and Griffin’s proficiency at locking down these lucrative side jobs, is there trouble brewing on the horizon? Over the past twelve months, the on-the-field, on-the-court behavior of the two men has garnered some criticism from both their peers and opposing fans, for a variety of reasons. Could it be that two of the most heavily promoted young athletes in America are actually unlikable? What could this mean for their futures as pitchmen?
Ndamukong Suh was one of the most decorated college football players in history during his time at the University of Nebraska. His senior season, he won the Associated Press College Football Player of the Year Award, though of course, the highest finish he could muster in the much ballyhooed Heisman Trophy voting was 4th. In reality, Suh was the best college football player in America in 2009 – and one of the most dominant defensive forces to come into the NFL in years.
He gained great publicity and became a media darling when he donated $2.6 million to his alma mater in April of 2010, before he had even been drafted, much less appeared in an NFL game. The positive reviews of the guy coming out of college were overflowing, and companies lined up en masse to enlist his services.
A funny thing has happened over the past two seasons. When it comes to his on-field conduct, at time Suh can be… well, dirty. His defenders believe his new reputation is unfair, and argue that he is merely an “old-school” football player. His detractors see him as a bully or a menace that cannot control his temper. The two clips below are examples of Suh at his worst:
Suh’s infamous “Thanksgiving Day Stomp”
Suh attempts to collect Jake Delhomme’s head as a souvenir
Moments like these leave lasting impressions on opposing players, coaches, announcers and officials, to the point where the reputation of Suh as a dirty player takes on a life of its own. Suddenly, Suh can’t make a (relatively) clean football tackle without announcers raising their voices or referees throwing flags, as you see here:
Suh sacks Andy Dalton, whose helmet happens to come off
Suh pushes Jay Cutler to the ground, and flags fly
Whether Suh is A) the victim of a league cracking down disproportionately on defensive violence, or B) a dirty football player is beside the point. When it comes to endorsements, to marketability, to sales, perception is key. For football fans outside of Detroit, even casual ones, the name Ndamukong Suh is synonymous with controversial or dirty play.
On the other hand, athletes don’t lose endorsements due to on-field performance – it’s almost always an off-the-field concern which makes them a persona-non-grata. Tiger Woods was a reckless philanderer, Kobe Bryant was accused of rape, Michael Phelps smoked some weed, Michael Vick killed some dogs – and some of the companies paying them big money ended those relationships (at least until names were cleared or the storm blew over).
Given Suh’s personal makeup (how many 23 year olds do you know that would donate $2.6 million [if they had it] to their alma mater?) it’s doubtful we’ll see scandal on that level out of him. But two years into his professional career, he is in a dangerous territory – if he becomes reviled throughout the country, the symbol of a ‘bad-boy’ football player a la James Harrison or Bill Romanowski, he won’t expand his market further, and could see his current endorsements shrivel up.
The glamour position in football is at quarterback – it’s tough for a non-quarterback to ascend into the upper echelon of lucrative endorsements. Basketball is much different. Part of the reason is the inherent nature of the game – football players are covered in pads and helmets, whereas basketball players are more ‘visible’ in their uniforms. The economic structure of professional basketball is also unique. Shoe deals and ‘cults of personality’ seem to factor heavily in which stars attract attention.
Enter Blake Griffin. An All-American and Naismith National Player of the Year during his sophomore season at Oklahoma, Griffin was drafted first overall by the Los Angeles Clippers in the 2009 NBA Draft. He suffered a knee injury in the final preseason game of his rookie year and didn’t appear in a single game for the Clippers in 2009-10. He returned for the 2010-11 season and quickly left his impression on the league with high-flying dunks and examples of his highlight-reel athleticism.
Griffin’s health alone made many NBA observers happy; there was a concern the league would end up with another Greg Oden, who had been drafted #1 in 2007 but had seen his career ruined by knee and leg injuries. Blake came back healthy, and with a flair for the dramatic. He made several deft moves early in his career, the most famous of which was him dunking over a Kia during the Slam Dunk contest (which he won) during All-Star weekend – which parlayed into his first major endorsement deal.
As we near the end of his second season in the league, Blake has picked up many more endorsements, but below the surface bubbles a sinister sentiment among his peers – that Griffin is a flopper. There is plenty of violence in Griffin’s game – the physicality and strength required to pull off some of his dunks is breathtaking – but at times Griffin has obviously overplayed contact in a cheap manner. Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about:
Eddie House ‘fouls’ Griffin on a breakaway
Griffin hurls himself into the stands
He hits himself in the head and asks why a foul isn’t called
At risk of agreeing with DeMarcus Cousins on anything… he called Griffin ‘an actor’ on this one, and it’s hard to argue with it
This is the most egregious one… Griffin hard fouls himself
‘Flopping’ is an issue for the NBA. Many players do it (see also: every European player, ever) but there seems to be particular exception to Blake’s flopping. Part of this might have to do with Griffin’s affinity for ‘posterizing’ opponents during dunks, and the long stare-downs he gives players (and officials) if he gets fouled or doesn’t get a particular foul call. Griffin wants to play a physical, violent style of basketball – but gets very worked up over people getting physical with him. I’m not saying Griffin’s a sissy; far from it. He gets beaten up more than just about any player:
Jason Smith continues the New Orleans bounty program, this time in the NBA
Andre Miller doesn’t like Griffin much
In a time when highlight reels are viewed about as much as the actual games are, it’s easy to lose sight of what is important. Griffin is viewed by many as the best power forward in the game, in part because of the staggering number of impressive dunks and hustle plays he makes (Griffin’s Youtube dunk montages go on forever, it seems). Arguing based on these criteria is a little like arguing that Dominique Wilkins was better than Michael Jordan – no one who understands the sport would ever do such a thing.
But highlight-reel popularity can translate into endorsement deals and a national media profile, which Griffin is wisely capitalizing on. Much like Suh, it’s doubtful that Griffin could suffer major loss of endorsement dollars unless he gets into some legal trouble. However, if he becomes a villain – to borrow a phrase from wrestling, if he ‘turns heel’ – it’s definitely feasible that his public profile could dwindle.
Personally, I dislike Suh and Griffin – Suh because I am a Packer fan, Griffin because of the way he plays – but I’m never going to stop eating Subway or Doritos over it. It’s likely that 99% of people feel the exact same way. It is interesting to note, though, that two of the most marketable young athletes in America are a bit unlikable, and may never become the beloved figure that we all picture when we think about the top endorsement-earning athletes (i.e. Peyton Manning).
A jerk who a significant portion of the population dislikes can still make plenty of money as a spokesman, after all.
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Filed under: NBA, NFL | Tagged: Andy Dalton, Blake Griffin, Charles Barkley, Charles Barkley in a dress, Doritos, endorsements, Griffin flop, Jake Delhomme, Jason Smith, Jay Cutler, Kevin Love, Kia, Ndamukong Suh, Subway, Suh dirty |