Oh my. Well, the NFL ruling on Adrian Peterson came down yesterday, and it was about what I expected – a suspension for the rest of the season. And you knew it was going to come down hard after he basically rebuked the NFL’s hearing on Friday, issuing a statement afterwards pointed at the NFL’s disciplinary inconsistencies. Odd the timing there, poking the bear after it was already awake and growling at you.
What I found most awful about the ruling, though, wasn’t the decree itself, but the ridiculously paternalistic wording of Goodell in it, in which he basically chided Peterson for his behavior, and went on about his lack of remorse. Now, maybe it’s just me, but I’m not sure Roger Goodell is supposed to be judging Peterson about his remorse or lack thereof. Who is he to make that call? If Goodell had a degree in psychology, maybe that’d be fair play, but he doesn’t – he has a degree in economics. Goodell scolding Peterson over his remorse would be like Peterson offering Ryan Suter tips on his slapshot. Except that what Goodell is doing is really worse – he’s using his opinion as part of the formula in his ruling.
You see, here’s the thing. Peterson owes the NFL nothing – his case was a criminal case, which proceeded through normal criminal channels. He was suspended and stayed quiet for the duration. He pleaded to a misdemeanor and avoided a felony count as a result. And the NFL, to its serious discredit, does not have a concrete disciplinary process in existence. This is really the crux of the matter – punishments are inconsistent and impossible to predict, and generally speaking, trying to fight a punishment only means more punishment. Goodell is, after all, the judge, jury, executioner, and appeals judge of the NFL. And so far, there’s no set standard for discipline, no roadmap to follow that tells a player “if I do this, I can expect that to happen to me.” The NFLPA and Adrian Peterson are right about that – the process is almost completely arbitrary, and I have a hunch that Goodell likes it that way.
Which is why I’m not surprised by this situation. If you ask me, the NFLPA is taking an opportunity to really push back on Goodell here; they’re using the Peterson case as a highlight. Remember – Ray Rice only got a 2-week suspension for knocking his wife out until more incriminating evidence came out, at which point the entire process became a colossal clusterfuck for the NFL. And everything since then has hinged on that – the NFL is willing to demolish Adrian Peterson to help salvage the brand. And I think the NFLPA realizes that. I sincerely doubt Adrian Peterson spurned Goodell’s wish for a hearing last Friday on his own; I have no doubt that he had a union rep in his ear, telling him that if he wanted any leverage of his own, he had to buck up against Goodell. And, in reality, that’s bullshit – Goodell is happy to rain fire on AP and has the leverage to do so, especially since public opinion of AP is kinda low, even here in Minnesota. It helps that there’s a nice out in his contract for the Vikings after this year, too. But I think the NFLPA recognizes that this is a golden opportunity – a high profile case that highlights the inconsistencies of the NFL’s process – that they can use as a platform in a long-term game to push back on Goodell. Maybe not this year, maybe not the next, but you can almost feel the NFLPA gearing up for a showdown as players become increasingly frustrated with the process.
Now, I should reiterate here – I in no way defend Adrian Peterson’s actions. Child abuse is a heinous crime. However, it is a crime that many people still consider to be standard behavior, an accepted and lauded way to raise a well-mannered child. The downside is that punishing people doesn’t educate them. Adrian Peterson has been remarkably tone-deaf during this entire process, which tells me two things – first, that this type of discipline was very firmly ingrained in his upbringing, and second, that no one seems to be teaching him otherwise. When the news first broke, I remember thinking of what a great PR opportunity it was for the NFL after Ray Rice – they could suspend AP for awhile, during his legal proceedings, and really push the education angle; get AP some classes, teach him, and let him be a spokesperson against child abuse going forward. But that didn’t happen.
See, here’s where the real problem lies – the NFL likes to think of its players as role models for communities and children. Let me be the first to say that is a patently absurd idea. Football players are not role models by default; no one is. Some are, sure – Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, whatever. But if the NFL wants to have guys front-and-center in the public arena, maybe they should pick and choose and vet these guys a bit. Because frankly, many NFL players are not role models – they’re just people, many from impoverished backgrounds, trying to make a living. A living that they make by playing an incredibly violent, incredibly macho sport. Just because you strap on a helmet, end up on TV, and can catch a ball doesn’t make you a hero to me. This isn’t just a football thing, either – it goes for all sports, and really, all walks of life. Bill Gates is an admirable philanthropist, but it doesn’t make every Microsoft employee a community role model, you know?
The NFL didn’t always push its players like this – I don’t remember this nonsense growing up. Some guys were role models, yeah – we loved Barry Sanders in Detroit, for example, and we loved him because he was exceptionally talented and exceptionally humble. But I don’t remember hearing about crap like this all the time; occasionally, a player did something stupid, but there wasn’t an insane spectacle about it, because no one assumed anyone was looking to said random player to be a role model. That wasn’t how Paul Tagliabue’s NFL ran. But it is now Roger Goodell’s NFL runs – every player under the microscope, expected to be a paragon of virtue. And, lo and behold, that’s not working so well. Turns out, not every NFL player is a paragon of virtue. Maybe, just maybe, the solution isn’t to punish these men – these men of adrenaline and strength and machismo who play an ultra-violent sport – perhaps it’s to just let them be who they are, and not cast any kind of special light on that at all, and let normalcy reign.
Adrian Peterson is not a role model. He’s not a criminal, either. He’s a football player, a running back. His job is to run faster than other people or plow them over. He’s a father whose upbringing taught him to give a rude child a whoopin’. He’s a man who was never taught otherwise. You can fault him that, sure. But I think the failure in this situation goes well beyond Adrian Peterson.