The NFL has had a rough start to the 2014 season. First, it was accused of bungling the disciplinary action towards Ray Rice for beating his then-fiancee. Then video of the actual beating surfaced, not only confirming that Commissioner Roger Goodell indeed had levied too light a penalty but also raising the question of what the league knew and when. And before the dust could even think of settling on that issue, Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was indicted for child abuse, with prosecutors alleging he beat his four-year-old son so severely with a switch, he broke the skin and left welts on the child.
The league has more than a black eye on domestic violence issues at the moment. Its reputation is figuratively in the hospital after having had the hell beaten out of it.
Which is a metaphor that seems both appropos and wholly offensive given the nature of the issues.
I’ve been a fan of NFL football for 36 years. I write a blog on my favorite team. I own jerseys and caps. I subscribe to NFL Sunday Ticket. I am part of the culture of America’s most popular sports league.
And like many people who instead want nothing to do with the National Football League, I’m offended by the way these issues are being and have been handled.
I’m not here today, though, to heap criticism on the NFL or even on the players who committed the crimes in question. To be sure, the league needs to reform its policy on players charged with serious offenses. At the moment, responsibility falls to the teams to handle the matter until the legal system has run its course.
But that system is fraught with conflicts of interest. Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson are two of the most important players on their respective teams. Peterson in particular is the engine that makes the Vikings offense go. While one applauds Minnesota for deactivating him this past Sunday in the wake of the indictment, it’s not hard to understand why they reactivated him in the name of giving him his Constitutional right to due process. The Vikings got drubbed by New England 30-7 without Peterson.
You can complain all you want about teams needing to do the right thing, but the business of any professional sports team is winning games. Head coaches’ jobs, merchandising, stadium deals and a lot of other important monetary issues are bound up in how many games a club wins.
So the league needs to take the decision away from teams. Remove the conflict of interest. If a guy is accused of something as serious as what Peterson and Rice were, he should be suspended with pay by the league pending the outcome of the legal process. The players’ union can’t complain because the guy is getting paid, and no one’s civil rights are being infringed, because his employment isn’t threatened until and unless there’s a conviction. And the team doesn’t have to worry about deliberately affecting its chances to win games.
But that’s not addressing the real issue.
What’s really behind all this a cultural prevalence towards and accepting of violence. Not violence towards women. Not violence towards children. Violence period.
As I mentioned above, I’m a football fan. Football — particularly NFL football, which features the fastest, most powerful athletes in the sport — is a violent game.
Moreover, I’m an author of action-adventure fiction. Violence is a big part of my books, and the heroes ultimately use it to solve problems.
I also have a black belt in Kenpo. I’m trained in practical self-defense, and I enjoyed sparring and competing in tournaments.
So to an extent, that makes me a hypocrite.
But bear with me. The issue here is that, in everyday life, we don’t seem to understand that violence is a measure of last resort. Peterson told the grand jury he was only disciplining his child the way his own father had punished him. Indeed, a story surfaced last night that Peterson’s father whipped him with a belt in front of 20 other kids at school.
Sunday, on CBS’s The NFL Today, Charles Barkley said of the Peterson story, “I’m from the South. Whipping — we do that all the time.”
Here’s the thing that the Peterson case makes clear — abuse turns people into abusers.
I’m not going to debate whether corporal punishment is good or bad. All I’m going to say is that, if you leave welts or break open the skin on a child, you’ve crossed the line from discipline into child abuse.
Adrian Peterson doesn’t think he did anything wrong. He claims he was just raising his son the way he was raised.
It didn’t occur to him that a guy fast and strong enough to rush for 2000 yards in a single season in the toughest football league on the planet shouldn’t need a tree branch to discipline a child. Surely, if he thought his four-year-old needed a spanking, his hand was sufficient to cause enough pain that the child would fear getting out of line again (which is the point of corporal punishment).
But Peterson was whipped, not just spanked, so he thought that was the right way to handle the situation with his kid.
Likewise, I don’t know what caused Ray Rice to punch his fiancee hard enough to knock her out or why he thought punching anyone, let alone a woman, was acceptable behavior. But the idea couldn’t have been a new one to him. He learned it somewhere. He learned it from someone. Some time in his development as a human being, he was taught that violence was an acceptable way to solve problems.
And it’s tough, because on the football field, it is. Rice and Peterson are ball carriers. The others guys are trying to take them physically to the ground so they can’t advance the ball. Rice and Peterson are allowed, within the limits of the rules, to hit their opponents to prevent them from doing that.
But there has to be a line. Violence has to stay on the field. It needs to stay within the pages of the books and on the screens of the movie theaters.
It can’t get out into the real world unless it’s absolutely necessary. If you have to hit someone, it should be in self-defense, not to impose your will on them. If you think corporal punishment is an acceptable parenting tactic, it should be used only for the most serious offenses, not for any crime. And it should have limits.
Because abused children grow up to be abusers. It doesn’t matter if they are dirt-poor, barely scraping by in a dead-end job, or if they are multi-millionaires, who are among the best at their chosen profession like Peterson and Rice.
As a people and a species, we’ll never rid ourselves completely of violence. It will always be necessary to an extent. But we can learn to be better in our use of it. We can evolve to see it only as something we employ as a last resort, a nuclear option.
Because no matter how noble the intent behind it, violence is destructive. Once things come to blows, everyone loses.
If Peterson and Rice have anything to teach us, it is that abuse begets abuse and that we need to rethink our approach to physical conflict.