The Adrian Peterson Controversy:
The reactions and opinions about the Adrian Peterson situation have been extreme in both number and emotion. Unfortunately, I have yet to hear a commentary that I particularly agree with. After a significant amount of thought and reflection, I have decided to describe my own thoughts in writing.
First and foremost, this is far from the simple issue that most people make it out to be. Living in Minnesota, the loudest voices are proclaiming that Adrian Peterson’s actions were wrong, not effective, and akin to “child abuse.” From the Minnesota media, the consensus seems to be pretty much the same. From the people who know Adrian, mainly his teammates, the general theme is of support for their teammate and friend, and even some more vocal justifications, such as from Captain Munnerlyn and Jerome Felton. Others have decided to keep their personal feelings private, while expressing general support for the rights of parents to make decisions about discipline as they see fit.
Out of Texas, where Adrian Peterson was raised, there has been an outpouring of support for their local hero. This includes a public defense from his mother, and a carefully worded, “stay out of our business,” from the child’s mother. Throughout all of this, most of our “facts” come from Twitter and various “news” organizations, neither of whom obtained the information and pictures legally, and all of whom stand to profit from the outrage. To pour fuel on the fire, news of a second allegation, which sounds like it was really a “first allegation” that didn’t result in any charges, has made it clear to many people that AP is a child abuser.
All of this makes for a fairly muddled situation, far from the clear cut case that so many people want this to be. There are a lot of other “facts” in the case that make “getting it right” even more complicated. My intention is to separate “actual facts” from “perceived facts” and also try to look at the case from different perspectives than are being widely represented.
Children need discipline, and discipline is complicated. As a white child from the Midwest suburbs, I was raised with a certain understanding of discipline. That understanding included the idea that if I was really, really bad, I might get spanked. The fear of that possibility depended on my belief that it could ever actually happen. Fortunately for me, I did believe it, and I can count on one hand how many times it became necessary.
In other families, other cultures, other regions of the country, and other parts of the world, that understanding is most certainly different. Which makes this an especially sensitive subject is that the differentiation seems to consistently mirror racial and regional differences. African American kids from the South will generally have a very different understanding of what constitutes discipline. The fact that this distinction has a very strong racial and geographic (and potentially religious) causality should make all of us pause before rushing to judge the beliefs of others. Just as “it was how I was raised” should not automatically excuse Adrian Peterson’s actions, neither should “it’s not how I was raised” automatically condemn him.
Being a parent is hard work, and deciding how or when to discipline your child is an immense responsibility. While there may be many very credible studies that suggest that physical punishment is less effective than other forms of discipline, we don’t live in a perfect world. For a child raised in a stable home, by two parents who delivered a fair and consistent message about what is right and wrong, it may seem barbaric to think that this type of discipline would be employed. In less ideal circumstances, where not following the rules could be a life or death decision, it is fair to think that more severe measures may need to be employed to gain a child’s attention.
Ask yourself three questions, and try to answer them honestly:
1. Were you EVER spanked as a child (in any form)?
2. Do you think your parents did a good job of raising you?
3. Can you say (with 100% confidence) that you would NEVER consider spanking your child?
For me, the answers are YES, YES, and NO. This makes sense, because it is “how I was raised,” and “I turned out fine” so why would I believe that it was wrong? Think about your own answers, and then consider replacing “spanked” with “whooped”, and see if this is still an open and shut case.
Aside from the moral and practical opinions on what constitutes appropriate discipline, we need to take account of what the law actually says. I am not a lawyer; I have never studied law; and I don’t claim to be an expert in the area. If someone can point me to a written law that prohibits a parent from spanking their child, hitting them with a belt, or whipping them with a “switch,” then I think the legal aspects of this case are pretty clear. If not, then the case comes down to the judgment of the parent, and that of the jury (as an advocate for the child), as to whether Peterson “went too far” in his discipline of his son. At this point, that has not been determined and likely won’t be for quite some time, which makes the rush to judgment of both the media and the public a bit troubling.
The NFL is, quite simply, in a terrible place right now, plagued by decades of concern for profit over the welfare of its players and the communities that support its growing influence. The handling of the Ray Rice incident, and the subsequent handling of other recent issues, simply expose how secretive and protective the league has been over its image and its enormous profits.
Let’s be clear, the troubling reality of Ray Rice is this:
The NFL, in handing down an initial 2 game suspension, handed out a punishment that was far more severe than in most previous cases of domestic abuse by its players. If it seems like there has been a spike in domestic abuse issues since the Ray Rice situation blew up in their face, you are almost certainly wrong. The difference is that the NFL is actually starting to tell us about these incidents, for fear we’ll find out about them from TMZ. The other thing to recognize is that, by most accounts, Roger Goodell’s initial defense of the seemingly light suspension was correct, in that it was in line with other punishments that the league had handed down in recent years for similar incidents.
When we talk about precedent, in a legal sense or otherwise, we mean that punishments for certain behaviors should be determined (in part) by how similar situations have been handled previously. Let there be no mistake, this is a GOOD THING. Without precedent, we create an environment where decisions and discipline are guided by personal opinion, rather than facts. This makes discrimination much more likely when deciding appropriate discipline, as similar situations can be handled differently based on personal feelings or beliefs. It is almost always understood that discipline for “alleged” crimes or behavior be withheld until the legal process has completed, and a verdict rendered. In the Ray Rice case, the punishment handed down by the legal system was nearly non-existent, in large part because his fiancé refused to press charges and admitted to fault in the altercation. In this case, the league’s hands were mostly tied, as the legal system let Rice off with a slap on the wrist.
Personal Conduct Policy:
As private enterprises, the NFL, the Ravens, and the Vikings have a great deal of leeway when it comes to disciplining their employees. This generally comes down to situations where the actions of the employees “damage” the brand. In these cases, the employer has the right to discipline the employee in order to encourage more appropriate behavior. Conversely, the interests of the players are protected by the players’ union, to make sure the NFL doesn’t “go too far” in its discipline. In the Ray Rice case, the 2 game suspension was warranted, considering both the legal judgment and historical precedent.
The wild card is the personal conduct policy, and more importantly, the “NFL brand,” which was damaged due to public perception that the punishment was too lenient. The reason for that perception is the TMZ videos that were leaked for all to see. The punishment, in the opinion of the public, was too lenient even after the first video was seen. After the second video, however, the “brand” was immeasurably damaged, and action had to be taken. The fact remains, however, that the punishment that was eventually handed down to Rice was unprecedented due to the lack of any formal policy dictating punishment for domestic abuse cases, and due to the fact that the new policy was not enacted until after he was originally suspended.
Assumptions (these are mine):
1. If Ray Rice had not been caught on camera dragging his fiancé out of the elevator, he would not have received ANY suspension. This assumption is based on the fact that he was essentially cleared of any “criminal” wrong-doing AND that he was theoretically a first time offender. The 2 game suspension was almost entirely due to the release of the first video. In fact, the league’s (and Rice’s) knowledge of what was on the second video probably played a big part in Rice not appealing the initial suspension.
2. The uproar at the seemingly light suspension forced the league to re-evaluate its decades old policy of covering up anything and everything possible when it comes to the actions of its players, as long as they can keep it out of the media. This is all about “protecting the brand” and therefore the money.
3. The indefinite suspension of Ray Rice has already been challenged by the players union, and will almost certainly lead to him being reinstated by the league. If I were a betting man, I would say that he gets a MAXIMUM of a 6 game suspension, and more likely less than that since the policy did not exist when he was disciplined. Whether he ever gets picked up by another team is unlikely, but he will almost certainly collect on the remainder the money guaranteed in his contract with the Ravens, with the exception of the games he is officially suspended.
Back to AP:
Why am I talking about Ray Rice when this commentary is about Adrian Peterson? The rush to judgment of Peterson is a direct result of the uproar caused by the Ray Rice incident. Add to it the extra emotion due to the involvement of a young child, and you have a perfect storm for a premature, and potentially unfair reaction.
To be clear, Adrian Peterson has not been convicted of ANYTHING at this point. He has been charged with negligent injury to a child. This is very different from being charged with intentional injury to a child, assault, or child abuse. The charges, which he could eventually be found guilty of, suggest that he MAY have inflicted inappropriate injury to his child while exercising his parental rights to discipline him.
The PRECEDENT would suggest that no action be taken until the legal system had time to review the facts, and come to a judgment. If, at some point in the future, the legal system determines that he did break the law, the league and the team would be compelled to act in accordance with its own policies and best interests.
Most people believe that the Vikings screwed up this situation badly. I tend to agree with that assessment, though not for the reasons that you might think. Under normal circumstances, a 7 year veteran and seemingly upstanding citizen, would not be suspended by his employer on suspicion that he did something wrong. The initial decision to deactivate Peterson was generally applauded as the Vikings “doing the right thing,” even though there is very little legal or historical precedent for such action (Chris Cook aside). The subsequent decision to reinstate him was no doubt due to an honest evaluation trying to balance Peterson’s rights to due process with the interests of the team and organization. Peterson’s eventual dismissal was nothing more than an organization caving to external pressure, the almighty dollar, and making a decision without regard for facts, fairness or due process.
Bringing it all together:
After reading this commentary, it may be a bit unclear what my personal opinions are in this matter. I’ll do my best to clear that up right now. I personally don’t believe that spanking a child is a particularly effective form of punishment, and certainly don’t feel that it would be necessary to use a belt or a stick to more severely inflict physical pain as a form of punishment. I also believe that any man that intentionally strikes a woman when not protecting himself is a coward. I by no means support either behavior. The fact is, however, that one of these examples is clearly illegal, and the other may be illegal. There is also a difference in severity between the two, even if we assume both are crimes. It is not up to me, or you, or the media to determine what is and is not an appropriate form of punishment for someone else's child. If it were, I’m sure we’d all be guilty in someone’s eyes at one time or another. If a court decides that a crime was committed, then the punishment should fit the crime. And when Ray Rice is reinstated by the league after only losing 4-6 paychecks, the precedent will be set in regards to Peterson.
I decided to write this out because I was having difficulty explaining why I disagreed with the “popular opinions” being expressed so openly and passionately. In doing so, I tried to think about what it would be like to be raised in a family where this type of thing was the norm. How would you feel to find out that the way you were raised, and the way you currently raise your children, is so “obviously” wrong and horrible?
Hopefully this situation creates an environment where we can look at all sides of the issues at hand, and have an intelligent, fair, and open conversation that is inclusive of all people, not just those trying to sell jerseys, or newspapers, or online advertising.