Last week, buried as part of a late-Friday news dump, the worst PR week in NFL history got even worse: Adrian Peterson, the game’s best running back, was arrested out in Montgomery County on child abuse charges. That followed the horror show that was the release of the video of Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee in an elevator in New Jersey, and the subsequent questions about what, precisely, the NFL knew and when it knew it, and why Rice had only been suspended two games until the public saw the video.
All of this is well-established at this point, and it’s been so pervasive a story that networks have broken into regular programming to feature updates from embattled NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, whose job seems less and less certain as the days go by.
All of this makes for a bad PR situation for the NFL, which hates to see its games overshadowed by anything—the World Series, U.S. presidential debates, etc—and must really hate the on-field action being overshadowed by questions regarding its commissioner, the criminal behavior of the faces of the league, and a burgeoning debate—especially in light of the Peterson arrest—about the toxic version of masculinity and manhood that, in many ways, is at the core of the issue here. Fans like to gamble on the outcome of games, but the last thing the league wants is for people to call their bookies to ask what kind of odds they can get on Goodell having a job by the end of the week, or on who the next player to be charged with domestic violence will be.
That’s bad for the NFL, but it’s also frustrating for fans who want to be talking about the surprisingly dominant Cowboys defense in yesterday’s game against the Tennessee Titans, or the Texans’ dismantling of the Oakland Raiders in pursuit of a solid 2-0 start to the season. The games on Sunday were great—did you see how rejuvenated Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain looked? There’s hope for the season! And how about Ryan Fitzpatrick posting a QB rating 40 points higher than his career average!?—and to cheer these successes is a natural impulse for fans who care about the game. But the twinge of guilt that comes with focusing on those things, while the league itself looks worse and worse, is hard for anybody with a conscience to ignore. Football is a welcome distraction for many from the bummers of reality, but it’s not as though you can take your mind off of the horror show that is the NFL by watching three hours of football.
The NFL seemed interested in trying to mitigate these circumstances over the weekend: three of the four high-profile players who’ve been arrested on domestic violence allegations in recent months sat out on Sunday. Rice was cut by the Ravens and banned indefinitely following the release of the video by TMZ. Peterson was deactivated by the Vikings for the game following his arrest in Montgomery County. Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy was deactivated on Sunday morning, seemingly as a precautionary measure after his conviction this summer in a bench trial on domestic violence. It was only 49ers pass rusher Ray McDonald, arrested in late August, who actually suited up and started for his team on Sunday.
Three out of four ain’t bad, unless you’re talking about a major professional sports league attempting to address previous mishandlings of its domestic violence policy, in which case it’s not great. But even benching McDonald wouldn’t necessarily make it easier to enjoy the games or make it less obvious that the league is trying desperately to deflect attention away from the off-field actions of its stars.
It’s a short-term strategy, ultimately. By Monday afternoon, the Minnesota Vikings announced that Adrian Peterson would return to the team as it waits for the legal process to resolve itself in regards to his arrest in Texas. But the Vikings are no doubt grappling with the off-field charges while still trying to rationalize the fact that without Peterson, an unquestionable all-time great player, the season could be lost.
It’s the decisions like this that make watching the NFL feel gross right now. The off-field child abuse charges can be—have to be—minimized for the on-field results to come. Vikings owner Zygi Wilf issued a statement touting the fact that the team deactivated Peterson for a game as proof that they totally take these charges seriously—but that they’re also going to let him practice this week and play on Sunday:
Today’s decision was made after significant thought, discussion and consideration. As evidenced by our decision to deactivate Adrian from yesterday’s game, this is clearly a very important issue. On Friday, we felt it was in the best interests of the organization to step back, evaluate the situation, and not rush to judgment given the seriousness of this matter. At that time, we made the decision that we felt was best for the Vikings and all parties involved. To be clear, we take very seriously any matter that involves the welfare of a child. At this time, however, we believe this is a matter of due process and we should allow the legal system to proceed so we can come to the most effective conclusions and then determine the appropriate course of action. This is a difficult path to navigate, and our focus is on doing the right thing. Currently we believe we are at a juncture where the most appropriate next step is to allow the judicial process to move forward.
The details of Peterson’s arrest, meanwhile, make the talk of “due process” and “the most effective conclusions” seem a bit weasely. While it’s true that Peterson has yet to be convicted of anything, the NFL and the Vikings already have plenty of information, as does the public, after this report from CBS Houston:
The beating allegedly resulted in numerous injuries to the child, including cuts and bruises to the child’s back, buttocks, ankles, legs and scrotum, along with defensive wounds to the child’s hands. Peterson then texted the boy’s mother, saying that one wound in particular would make her “mad at me about his leg. I got kinda good wit the tail end of the switch.”
Peterson also allegedly said via text message to the child’s mother that he “felt bad after the fact when I notice the switch was wrapping around hitting I (sic) thigh” and also acknowledged the injury to the child’s scrotum in a text message, saying, “Got him in nuts once I noticed. But I felt so bad, n I’m all tearing that butt up when needed! I start putting them in timeout. N save the whooping for needed memories!”
In further text messages, Peterson allegedly said, “Never do I go overboard! But all my kids will know, hey daddy has the biggie heart but don’t play no games when it comes to acting right.”
According to police reports, the child, however, had a slightly different story, telling authorities that “Daddy Peterson hit me on my face.” The child also expressed worry that Peterson would punch him in the face if the child reported the incident to authorities. He also said that he had been hit by a belt and that “there are a lot of belts in Daddy’s closet.” He added that Peterson put leaves in his mouth when he was being hit with the switch while his pants were down. The child told his mother that Peterson “likes belts and switches” and “has a whooping room.”
Peterson, when contacted by police, admitted that he had “whooped” his son on the backside with a switch as a form of punishment, and then, in fact, produced a switch similar to the one with which he hit the child. Peterson also admitted that he administered two different “whoopings” to his son during the visit to Texas, the other being a punishment for the 4-year-old scratching the face of a 5-year-old.
(It’s curious that the NFL would hold Peterson to a different standard than Rice, since neither was convicted of anything, though we all saw the video of Rice striking his fiancee and photos emerged of Peterson’s son’s injuries.)
Sports media, meanwhile, seems to be invested in treating Peterson gently, as well. Stories on league-partner news outlets like ESPN and NBC’s ProFootballTalk make frequent reference to the “switch” Peterson used in striking his child, and seem willing to base their reports on the photographs, but it’s only local media like CBS Houston, and non-sports media nationally, that report the details from Peterson’s son: most sports outlets have left out the allegations from the child that Peterson struck him in the face, or that Peterson threatened to hurt him further if he told anyone what happened. Even if someone argues that children can be manipulated and they don’t always make the most reliable witnesses in abuse cases, this child’s story still must be heard, considered, and weighed with all of the additional evidence.
Sports media has historically had a hard time treating athletes as anything other than the protagonists in their stories, and that means it’s tough to give voice to their victims. All of which means that fans of the Vikings, if they get their facts strictly from these types of sources, might have no idea of the extent of the allegations against Peterson—which makes those outlets somewhat complicit in furthering the viewpoint of ownership that “who the heck knows what happened” and “let’s see how this all plays out.”
And this, ultimately, is why we’re writing about Adrian Peterson right now, and not the shocking defensive turnaround displayed by the Cowboys, or the cool confidence Ryan Fitzpatrick has shown through his first two games as the Texans’ starter—because there is no great difference between “on-field fun” and “off-field horror.” The off-field horror is minimized—shamefully—in order to bring us that on-field fun.