Odell Beckham Jr. earned his suspension, of this there is little doubt. He melted down against the Carolina Panthers, and his helmet-first launch into Josh Norman's head carried the required penalty across the divide separating a fine from a seat in his living room for the New York Giants' game at Minnesota.
As quickly as Beckham ascended to the heights of NFL celebrity last year with his three-fingered catch against Dallas, someone who knows him said his plunge from grace was just as dramatic. Beckham went from passionate megastar to occupational hazard just like that, and it's going to be a long time before people let him forget how ugly he looked in defacing his own beautiful football skills.
But as much as Beckham deserves to be punished, he doesn't deserve to be demonized. One Giants source said the receiver was unnerved by the fact that one Panther carried a baseball bat onto the field during warm-ups, a bat that found its way into cornerback Josh Norman's hands. The source also said Giants players heard Carolina players direct at least two anti-gay slurs at Beckham, setting the confrontational tone.
This is context, not a cop-out, to help explain why an otherwise rational human being might act as irrationally as Beckham did in a 38-35 loss to an unbeaten team. Beckham is 23 years old, and he spent three hours showcasing his youth and immaturity before millions of witnesses.
But Beckham didn't do what Ray Rice was suspended for, or what Adrian Peterson was suspended for, or what Greg Hardy was suspended for, and he shouldn't be treated as if he belongs in the same ballpark. He committed his offense in uniform, between the lines. His crime was being too violent and reckless in a violent and reckless sport.
Beckham was caught up in a week's worth of attention hyping his matchup with Norman, magnified by what he perceived to be a hostile pregame environment, and he came charging out of his corner foaming at the mouthpiece, hunting a first-round knockout. Norman had fought his own quarterback, Cam Newton, in training camp, and he was a willing participant in this prizefight too. If Norman was an innocent bystander here, one league official said, he'd go down as "the least innocent innocent bystander of all time."
In a piece Friday tracing the roots of Beckham's competitive drive, I wrote that nobody should be surprised if the receiver responded to successful Norman coverage by slamming his own helmet into the ground like he did at the end of last year's loss to San Francisco. I also wrote that his inner rage isn't fueled by selfish goals, but by the desire to be great in a team-first way recognized by his bosses, Tom Coughlin and Jerry Reese.
Though I was stunned Sunday by the extreme manifestation of that rage, nothing Beckham did changed my opinion about what inspires him. Beckham correctly believes that he's playing for a sub-mediocre football team, and that its only chance of beating the Panthers and making the playoffs rested on his ability to physically dominate Norman.
He just took it too far. Way, way too far. And Beckham will pay an appropriate price for his mistakes in the form of the one-game suspension, pending an appeal he doesn't deserve to win.
But he's not a monster, or a criminal, or even a bad teammate. His high school coach and quarterback at Isidore Newman in New Orleans told me last week that he was as selfless and committed an athlete as they'd ever come across. Basically, they said some of the same things Coughlin and Eli Manning said on their Monday conference calls with reporters.
Manning ripped Norman for ripping Beckham's behavior, and correctly suggested the officiating crew should've done a much better job controlling the early altercations. Those who know the stoic, controversy-averse quarterback understand he wouldn't step into the middle of a media inferno for just any Giant.
Coughlin? He's 69 years and has been coaching forever, and he said Beckham brings qualities to the team "the likes of which I've never seen." Coughlin spoke of the receiver's nonstop energy and hustle.
"I will not defend his actions yesterday," the coach said, "because they were wrong and this particular franchise and organization does not tolerate that, so I would not do that. But I will defend the young man and the quality of the person. I will defend him as long as I'm able."
Coughlin delivered these very words to his team, with one source saying Beckham listened intently and nodded in agreement. No, that isn't the end of story. Though the Giants said Beckham was a largely composed presence on the sideline in between possessions, Coughlin still has to answer for why he didn't bench the receiver for at least one series, and for why he didn't know Beckham was responsible for three personal fouls.
Coughlin needed to be better than the woefully overmatched refs on Sunday, and he needed to be better than the response he gave Monday about keeping Beckham on the field. "If we were to have a chance to win the game," Coughlin said, "I wanted him to be out there. I'll be honest with you."
If Beckham is honest with himself he'll admit he might've cost Coughlin his job, and might've cost Coughlin's team its last true shot at winning the NFC East. He screwed up at the worst possible time, and now must confront the mother of all teaching moments. He became the first Giant ever suspended for on-field conduct, making the wrong kind of history after all that coverage of the historic 25-game start to his career.
"At numerous times during yesterday's game against the Carolina Panthers," read the league's letter to Beckham, "your actions placed a fellow player at unnecessary risk, reflected poorly on both yourself and the National Football League, and clearly did not represent the high standards of sportsmanship expected of an NFL player."
All true. But by all accounts Beckham has been consistently coachable and respectful inside the Giants' facilities, which is why his bosses and quarterback swear by him. He's still a good long-term gamble. He's still a guy you'd much rather have on your team than not. He merely got swept away by the kind of vulgar, trash-talking battle that unfortunately remains common in the NFL, and took it to a dangerous place that caused every Giant (most notably himself) great embarrassment.
Odell Beckham Jr. needed to be suspended for that. Demonized? Not even close.