Does Adrian Peterson Belong in the Rice Cooker?

Did the Viking Running Back Benefit From a Harsh Upbringing?

StateLibQld_1_113036_Cartoon_of_students_receiving_the_cane,_1888 The Minnesota Vikings reinstated their star running back (and then dumped him again after pressure from their sponsors), and that only stepped up the vilification of the NFL and its many crimes.  From ignoring long term cognitive disabilities to refusing to eliminate suddenly offensive team names, it’s hard to love this $10 billion sports juggernaut at the present time. Except perhaps at game time.

While it is tempting to toss the Peterson case into the same hopper as the Ray Rice domestic abuse drama, a little reflection suggests that the issues are not only fundamentally different, they may be even less clear cut and even more complex.  And yet the fact that they are being played out in what amounts to a celebrity media arena presents the opportunity to have a more meaningful discussion, if we choose to take it.  Even if it’s almost impossible to prevent our lives from being impinged by the actions of the celebrated, we can try to examine the stories honestly and thoroughly, as painful as that may be. In the Peterson case, it’s painful.

It isn’t possible to discuss Adrian Peterson’s discipline of his child without straying into areas that bring out strong emotions in most people.  Child abuse is in a different league than domestic violence, because a child has even less choice whether to remain in an abusive environment.  And while the visual evidence suggests that the level of Peterson’s punishment [of his son] exceeded what most people would consider acceptable, there are related factors that make a deeper conversation worth having.

The most vexing challenge would seem to be distinguishing between child abuse and a strict child rearing philosophy.  That  requires taking Peterson’s intent into consideration.  We can’t ultimately know what his motives were, but there is evidence available which allows for reasonable speculation.   Peterson has described a childhood that included physical punishment from the more violent end of the tough love parenting philosophy. Nevertheless, he attributes his success as an athlete to some degree to his strict upbringing.  He is not the only athlete (or other notable person) to credit tough parenting for his success. How many kids who escaped the gangs of their neighborhood believe they did so because of one or more parents who believed in corporal punishment to some degree?

When Peterson’s father sent him out to find the tree branch with which he would be beaten, it suggests a methodology – and one which was common in the neighborhood.  Was the ritual sadistic or merely part of a shared understanding that this is the right way to bring up a child.  Like it or not, the discipline seems to be part of an understood protocol and not the result of a sudden or drunken blind rage.   There are plenty of Christian communities that continue to adhere to Proverbs 13: 24: “he that spareth his rod hateth his son.”  Regretfully, the degree to which the rod is to be applied is not specified in the Proverb.

In this context, it is possible to be appalled by the results of Peterson’s implementation of “the switch” while simultaneously taking him at his word.  So it is not necessarily ironic that Adrian Peterson’s The All Day Foundation has been raising money to fight child abuse since 2013.  His father serves as president of the charitable organization.  It is hard to imagine that either of them believe they are child abusers.

While it appears that Peterson may be guilty of a crime at some level, there is a political aspect to this topic as well. Whatever our attitude regarding corporal punishment, how much do we want government involved in how we raise our children?  Where do personal and religious beliefs supersede the state’s interest in protecting the vulnerable? As a component in the ongoing culture wars, we continue to struggle with the answer to this question

Finally, while the visual evidence of the beating has been publicized, Peterson has not been convicted of a crime.  In a legal sense, only the government has the obligation to abide by the “innocent until proven guilty” maxim.  Employers, even those in special categories such as sports franchise and leagues, are free to fire employees because they have been indicted for crimes.  Yet the man on the street still subscribes to a residual sense of fairness with regard to this sort of justice.  Peterson probably committed a crime, but he has not been found guilty by a court of law.

Since Peterson is unlikely to go to trial until 2015, the Vikings and the NFL face a tough balancing act.  And like it or not, the NFL is a reflection of society that lives vicariously through it and other entertainment options.  Cynicism is a reasonable response to this mess, but it should not preclude the possibility that some good can come from it.