The Minnesota Vikings' Response to the Adrian Peterson Reinstatement Sends a Dangerous Message


Minnesota’s decision to activate Adrian Peterson is much, much bigger than Adrian Peterson, one of the league’s biggest stars. It’s bigger than a single player, and sponsors are taking notice. Anheuser-Busch, in a pretty large move, just came out and said that “[w]e are not yet satisfied with the league’s handling of behaviors that so clearly go against our own company culture and moral code.”

In a perfect world, the NFL shouldn’t be the moral arbiter of anything, and it shouldn’t be on the sponsors to threaten them into moral action. The league shouldn’t be, but that doesn’t mean as one of our largest and most influential social institutions that people don’t look to some of these issues as a gauge for behavioral norms, or at least to what is acceptable, in our vast and diverse society. And the response from Minnesota, and the lack of action so far from the league, is “unsatisfying.”

When a team re-activates a prominent athlete immediately, with nothing new happening, in the face of pictures of abuse that are shared virally, and an indictment, what is the message? When a prominent broadcaster talks about how this is the norm, what is the message?

If there are individuals out there, without good role models in parenting and looking at these as indications of what is acceptable, where was the line between acceptable and clearly not just drawn?

It was moved a little further downfield, after Rick Spielman spoke and the Vikings punted the ball:

"This is a very important issue. I want to take time to emphasize that the issue of child welfare is extremely serious and should be taken serious, not only by us but by everybody. We are trying to do the right thing. This is a difficult path to navigate regarding the judgment of how a parent disciplines his child. Based on the extensive information that we have right now and what we know about Adrian not only as a person but what he has also done for this community, we believe he deserves to play while the legal process plays out. At the same time, we must defer to the legal system to determine whether he went too far, but we cannot make that judgment."

Due process is a wonderful ideal for our criminal justice system. We don’t take away your liberty without providing a full legal process before doing so. The Vikings–as they have demonstrated so many times in the past–apparently believe in applying it as an employer selectively.

But by taking this position, they have taken a stand on a volatile issue. This is not a case where there seems to be much dispute about the underlying circumstances (aka “did he do it?, “is someone lying?”). We have seen plenty of cases where players were falsely accused, there were multiple versions of events, and such. This matter comes down to where the line between acceptable parenting and abuse is.

Adrian Peterson whipped a child with a switch, to the point it caused injuries. By his own statements, he knew the mother might have a problem with the injuries, reportedly texting her that she would be “mad at me about his leg. I got kinda good wit the tail end of the switch.”

So there doesn’t seem to be much dispute here about that, only whether his legal counsel can appeal to a jury planting in their mind that he is famous, that his heart was in the right place and he really didn’t intend harm, or can minimize and explain the injuries (or alternatively, strike a favorable deal before they even get there).

My background, before writing at this site, included working for the state as an attorney dealing with child abuse and neglect cases. There are many different forms of parenting, just as there are many different personalities and opinions. I’m also a parent of four, and I can tell you: being a parent is hard. It’s is a constant challenge, dealing with young individuals learning how to function with the world that surrounds them. They can be selfish, stubborn, and exasperating. They can also be amazing, loving, and full of surprises. When I read the accounts of Adrian Peterson’s own words about what happened with his son, well, I can identify – not with the method that then occurred – but the emotion arising from that experience. One child is mean to another, and you want to protect the victim and teach a lesson.

Kids, man, they can look right at you and do the complete wrong thing just to push the boundaries. It can be frustrating.

If you are a parent, you have done something you are not proud of when it comes to parenting, because there is no perfect playbook and we are all fallible. That doesn’t mean that something rises to the level of criminality or abuse–it may be expressing frustration in an inappropriate manner, not setting an example in a teaching moment in public, failing to handle something in the right way. We also, as individuals, have different beliefs and ideas for how best to deal with the raising of children.

As a society, we can only safeguard at a base level of behavior, and ensure minimally acceptable parenting; the rest is up to the parents. You can decide how strict or liberal you want to raise the kids, what bedtime should be, how structured or open you will raise them.

That is not unlimited. You can’t prostitute them out. You can’t leave them in a car while you spend a day in the casino, you can’t go on a drug binge and fail to feed them, you can’t expose them to known abusers and leave them alone with them, and you can’t whip or beat them to the point that bones are broken, or wounds are visible and medical care is necessary.

So the Vikings purportedly looked at the evidence, which would include this picture, and are aware that Peterson acknowledged doing that, and said “We are not sure if that is abuse, let 12 other people decide.”

So I fear that this response from the Vikings, coupled with the facts that are known, just sent a tacit message on where that line is. Keep in mind, by the way, that the National Domestic Violence Hotline saw an increase of 84% in the number of calls in the two days after the Ray Rice video emerged.

And keep that in mind when you wonder if the Vikings’ position here matters.

I don’t want to vilify Adrian Peterson, and I don’t want a pound of flesh and to join a mob inciting anger until moving on to the next issue, or to make broad pronouncements about his character. I want him to get help, and make this into a powerful message, rather than whatever that farce perpetrated by the Vikings was yesterday. I believe that Adrian Peterson – as is so common in parents who become part of the system with a hotline call or an allegation of abuse or neglect – is simply responding to a situation in the same manner that he saw modeled as a child.

Peterson was likely a victim of overzealous punishment himself, and may be simply passing on what he experienced. For example, this USA Today story details how he was whipped by a belt in front of schoolmates by his father, and also includes Peterson’s brother reminiscing about how his father responded when told that Adrian might need medication for attention deficit disorder: “It’s not something that a little whipping can’t take care of.”

So I don’t know that there is a “correct number of games” that he must sit. I do know that the handling yesterday was not it. I’ll be ready to watch Adrian Peterson again when I hear from him (not a slickly crafted press release written by someone else) that he is aware of what he did, did not intend harm, but now recognizes that he must change his behavior. I’ll be ready when the Minnesota Vikings aren’t ambivalent on whether or not leaving stripe marks on a child is appropriate.

And I don’t need twelve people not smart enough to get out of jury duty to tell me when that time will be.

Related: Adrian Peterson Has Been Indicted on Charges of Reckless or Negligent Injury to Child
Related: Adrian Peterson: Alleged Photos of Boy’s Legs Show Extensive Cuts [UPDATE]
Related: How Do You Talk to Your Child About Sexual Abuse After Jerry Sandusky and Penn State