Steve Smith wants to be a leader. Friday morning he led with his right hand. Carolina's best receiver punched out Carolina's best cornerback. Unless Ken Lucas threw the first punch, the question isn't whether the Panthers will suspend Smith, but for how long.
Since Smith hates training camp, they can't suspend him for next week's practices. Since exhibitions mean nothing, benching him for preseason games is meaningless.
The Panthers open the regular season at San Diego, come home to play Chicago and play at Minnesota. Carolina should suspend him for all three.
Last summer the Panthers suspended guard Jeremy Bridges for two games after he was accused of pointing a gun at a woman who worked in a strip club. They were in a parking lot. Again, he had been accused, not convicted, of the misdemeanor.
If Friday's punch-out had occurred on the field, it would be easier to understand. Smith and Lucas have a history of talking trash to each other. If Lucas is hanging onto Smith's jersey and Smith is driving his shoulder into Lucas's chest, you can understand how the hostilities could escalate.
But that phase of practice had ended. Smith and Lucas were standing on the side of the field while the special teams worked. And suddenly there was movement, and bodies came together and more bodies came together and linebacker Jon Beason finally wrapped up Smith and pulled him apart from Lucas.
Football is violent, but even violence has rules. You can't hit a quarterback late, you can't take out an opponent's knees with a crack-back block, and unless you've been attacked, you can't drive your fist into a teammate's face when he's standing or kneeling next to you.
I no longer think about the damage Smith inflicted on the face of then-teammate Anthony Bright in 2002. In sports time, that was so long ago it might as well have been 1970.
Smith has since emerged as Carolina's best player and one of the league's best receivers.
He regularly invokes God, family and leadership. His many endorsements and charitable work bring him into contact with corporate chiefs and children, in suburban country clubs and city schools. The Panthers can take him anywhere.
The owner, management and coaches have invested considerable time in helping Smith evolve from a talent with a temper to an adult with a future. He is their success story, a testament to the Panther Way.
But who is he really? Smith said this week you can't spend two hours with a man and claim to know him, and I don't claim to know Smith.
But I have talked to him at least 75 times in a variety of contexts, the locker room, a board room, over lunch at a Ballantyne sports restaurant, on the side of a YMCA soccer field where his older son played.
Smith is smart and he is complex in the sense that what you get one day is not what you get the next. Lucas caught him on the wrong day or, better, Smith caught Lucas.
At 29, Smith has to know he can't punch everybody who makes him mad.
The Panthers have to know they can't let him.
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