Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press
Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (90) warms ups before an NFL football game against the Oakland Raiders in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, Dec. 18, 2011.
I think if Suh wants to reach his potential in the NFL, he needs <i>discipline.</i>

SALT LAKE CITY — They were searching for the right word.

A group of television commentators was debating the return of Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh after a two-game suspension for attempting to stomp Green Bay's Evan Dietrich-Smith.

They were discussing just how badly his team (and his fans) needed him to play hard, but at the same time, stay out of trouble. Be aggressive; be intense; and then one said it. The Detroit Lions needed Suh to play "smarter."

Not the word I was expecting.

Not the trait I think will make a difference for Suh.

I think if Suh wants to reach his potential in the NFL, he needs discipline.

Anyone who has spent any time playing sports is likely to extol the virtues of athletics. Often, discipline is at the top of any list — right in between hard work and teamwork.

So why is it that so many professional athletes exhibit an extreme lack of discipline? And it's not just players, it's the guys who are supposed to be teaching — and enforcing — discipline who disappoint as well.

Lions coach Jim Schwartz may not be the best person to teach Suh about discipline. He revealed his own issues with the ability to control oneself when Detroit suffered its first loss to San Francisco in October.

After the game, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh was a little excited, pulling his shirt up and running onto the field to shake Schwartz's hand with so much exuberance that he ended up hitting Schwartz on the back with enough force that it angered him.

So how did this million-dollar coach handle his anger? By running after Harbaugh and trying to hit him. Isn't that the way everyone handles frustration and disappointment?

His explanation afterward only revealed that his lack of discipline was accompanied by a lack of self-awareness, as well as an inability to accept responsibility for his actions.

"I went to congratulate coach Harbaugh and got shoved out of the way," he said at the post-game press conference. "I didn't expect an obscenity at that point, so it was a surprise to me at the end of the game. Obviously when you win a game like that, you're excited and things like that, but I think there's a protocol that goes with this league."

Really? And that protocol includes beating people up when they disrespect you? Hmm, that explains a lot — including the way Suh has handled his return to the field.

He cut short a radio interview after repeatedly trying to avoid questions about his bad behavior. His only public apology came on Facebook, and it was after he repeatedly denied trying to stomp his opponent.

He posted this about 24 hours after the game against Green Bay: "My reaction on Thursday was unacceptable," the star defensive tackle wrote. "I made a mistake, and have learned from it. I hope to direct the focus back to the task at hand — by winning."

What did he learn? He won't tell us. His statement tells me that he believes winning will earn him forgiveness. The pathetic reality is that it will mend fences with some.

But some of us are holding out hope for more.

As I considered what I hope Suh has learned, and how I wish he'd share that as publicly as he shared his frustration, I also wondered if the real problem is in the way we define discipline.

Discipline is more than showing up on time for practice. It's more than dedication to offseason training and much more than the commitment to studying film and learning plays. It is, in essence, impulse control.

Maybe it isn't that sports teach us discipline as much as it is sports provide opportunities to learn to be disciplined. The games, like life, will put us in situations where other people hit us with cheap shots. They'll hurl insults at us, try to hurt us or taunt and tease.

That's the opportunity to test our discipline.

And while it's understandable to fail sometimes, to let our emotions get the best of us now and then, I think that real failure only comes when we don't recognize and take responsibility for a mistake.

Because the simple truth is if you string enough uncorrected mistakes together, they become proof that you're exactly the guy you've been telling everyone you're not.

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