Adrian Peterson earned the same kind of legal victory over the NFL on Thursday that Ray Rice did back in November -- an ultimately hollow one.
Two different judges have now chastised Commissioner Roger Goodell for applying the league's new personal conduct policy retroactively, to players who actually committed their acts long before the public firestorm those acts generated overtook the sports world last fall. The league and its teams, indefensibly, had a misguided view of domestic violence -- Baltimore Ravens team president Dick Cass candidly admitted this week that it was treated like a bar fight. But while the league is appealing the decision to send Peterson's case back to arbitrator Harold Henderson, the win is already in its hands.
Rice and Peterson were kept off the field for 2014, when it was absolutely crucial that they not be allowed to represent the NFL. That was, ultimately, the only thing that could matter in those first frenzied days. So Rice and Peterson effectively disappeared, and in the meantime, Goodell drove through a much tougher conduct policywithout negotiating with the players union. Goodell has taken considerable lumps from the media and players and now from two judges, but he and the NFL survived the league's greatest crisis under him with its popularity clearly intact and a consolidation of powers for its top executive. However personally wounded Goodell might have been by the last few months, that is an outcome that many CEOs happily would have accepted -- even if Goodell ultimately might have to find some common ground with the NFLPA on personal conduct to avoid this constant parade before judges.
Thursday's decision on Peterson, and the public comments that came after, give this the look of a win-win for the league and Peterson, though. Because Peterson is back on the Commissioner's Exempt List while the appeal plays out, he and the Minnesota Vikings -- who say they want to welcome him back -- can begin to talk about his future. A reported heated encounter between a team executive and Peterson's agent at the NFL Scouting Combine suggests Peterson wants to play elsewhere. And perhaps the Vikings, who have all the leverage here because Peterson is under contract, will decide to trade or release him because they figure the running back will be too much of a headache. But Peterson will certainly resume his career somewhere. The court's decision, then, did little more than start the clock on the difficult decision a few weeks earlier than if Peterson had been reinstated in April, as originally ruled.
When will Peterson really return? That's hard to tell. But it's difficult to embrace Peterson as an aggrieved party, no matter how long he has to wait.
It's easy to take your eye off the ball when considering how awry so many of the NFL's decisions have gone with Rice and Peterson, and the league deserved much of the criticism and scrutiny it received. But Peterson left welts on his 4-year-old son after striking him with a switch as a form of discipline. Worry about the procedure and the NFL machinations all you like, but Peterson is far from a victim. There is nobody whose behavior deserves much sympathy -- including the Vikings, who wanted to reinstate him during the 2014 season before he ultimately ended up on the Commissioner's Exempt List. But Peterson's public statements, in which he has indicated that he is unhappy with how the Vikings treated him, reveal either a lack of self-awareness or a blithe disregard for the consequences of his actions. Peterson will get his second chance wherever the Vikings allow him to have it -- and, outside of the media, there is a very small minority of people who care about how Peterson feels or if he has been treated fairly.
The league is concerned about the precedent created by the decision that might have made Peterson eligible a few weeks sooner than expected. That is why it is appealing to the business-friendly Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. The result of that appeal might prove to be important when the league decides what to do with the Carolina Panthers' Greg Hardy, who faces discipline for his own domestic violence incident (which also happened before the new personal conduct policy went into effect). Hardy's charges were dropped after he reached a financial settlement with the woman who had accused him. But the league, which learned too late not to rely on the judicial system to come to the right conclusion, is now conducting its own investigation.
In the meantime, the business of football rolls along. Rice is still looking for a team that will take a chance on an aging running back who is viewed as a pariah in some circles. Peterson, still a vital player, will probably have a less laborious time while the Vikings consider their options for him.
When training camps open in August, it will be almost one year since we last saw Peterson and Rice on the football field. It certainly has been a relief not to have to look at them after seeing the damage they did in those unsparing videos and photos. But it also feels like, as the calendar finally turns to the 2015 season, it's time for everyone to try to piece back together their lives after a long period of punishment. In its clumsy way, by overreaching on its discipline in the court's eyes, the NFL reached the right outcome after all.