In trying to sort through the policy machinations and personal and political motivations surrounding Adrian Peterson, as well as the super-heated atmosphere in which the NFL suspended him for the rest of the season on Tuesday, one thing has remained constant.
The rest-of-the-season suspension Peterson received after pleading no contest to a misdemeanor assault charge underscores how public opinion is shaping the NFL's response to domestic violence issues in the post-Ray Rice world. The language of the league's announcement makes clear that even if Commissioner Roger Goodell is willing to cede some of his power under a new personal conduct policy, he is going to exert as much control as possible when the image of the league could be tarnished. The response by the NFL Players Association re-emphasizes the underlying mistrust of a league with which it is supposed to be crafting that revised policy.
Those are all important issues to contend with. But Peterson's decision to hit his 4-year-old son with a switch until there were wounds that were still visible days later disqualifies him from your sympathy. He is entitled to due process, of course. But nothing more than that.
The problem for Peterson is that the NFLPA was not able to wrest any control over the personal conduct policy from the league when the collective bargaining agreement was settled. Despite Goodell's stated willingness to discuss a new policy that will codify specific penalties for specific offenses and to cede some of his power in determining discipline, that new policy is not done. The considerable tension between the sides is not likely to make the negotiation process a smooth one.
So in the meantime, the league exercised its heavily tilted version of due process, crushing Peterson with its suspension and setting up high hurdles for him to earn reinstatement when the league reconsiders his status next spring. It is not even clear today if Goodell will appoint a neutral person to hear Peterson's appeal, which the union wants but Goodell has no obligation to provide.
There are a few things to note here. The league delivered a hard suspension despite Peterson pleading no contest to what was only a misdemeanor assault charge. The league has previously leaned heavily on legal outcomes to inform its decisions. However, that led the league into trouble with Rice, and the decision-makers have clearly learned their lesson. As for those who say the league is making it up as it goes along, well, yes, that's probably true. According to a person familiar with the league's consideration of Peterson, they found just two other child abuse-related cases since 1994, and none of them of this magnitude. Of course, mores have certainly changed since then. So did the league have to construct a penalty without a suitable precedent? Certainly.
But that's not so bad. The league leaned too heavily on precedent -- inadequate precedent -- in going easy on Rice with its initial two-game suspension for punching his then-fiancée. The fierce public reaction to that has clearly chastened the league. Is it good to make policy based on the whims of public opinion? Generally, no. But in this case, it is far more preferable than remaining stubbornly in support of previous mistakes and tone-deaf to the current environment. You want the league to learn and adjust, even if its motives are as cynical as wanting to appease queasy sponsors.
According to a person aware of the thinking that went into the suspension, the league was most concerned that Peterson has shown no remorse or apparent understanding that his behavior has to change. The fear is that if Peterson does something like this again, he would be subject to banishment from the league. That, of course, directly affects the league's image. And that has to be Goodell's primary concern: protecting the NFL's interests.
Which is often the same as protecting his own interests. The language of the Peterson announcement indicates the NFL was none too happy that Peterson declined to attend a hearing with Goodell at which the counseling Peterson has been receiving would be discussed. The league wanted to be assured at that meeting that Peterson was getting the message. When he did not attend -- he and the union questioned the nature of the hearing -- the league handed out its punishment without Peterson's input. Maybe anger over Peterson's absence contributed, or maybe it indicated to the NFL that he is still not getting it.
But the message the NFL was trying to send -- to Peterson and to everybody else in the league -- is that they are public figures. And if need be, players who misbehave should receive intensive counseling and guidance before they can be allowed to return to the NFL, to assure, to whatever extent is possible, that they will not repeat their behavior.
You can hammer the league for its mishandling of Rice, for not being attuned to public sentiment regarding domestic violence. Goodell and his advisers deserved that criticism. But you can't, in the next breath, complain that they are being capricious with their punishments now. They have gotten the message from a public disgusted with the few cases of serious player misbehavior. The public has spoken over the past few months. The league is finally listening.
The lengthy process the NFL has gone through in trying to get it right on Rice and Peterson is undoubtedly ugly. This will also be true of the upcoming fight with the union during Peterson's expected appeal, as it was of Rice's appeal. Everybody has been sullied by the past few dispiriting months -- Goodell and his top advisers, the league's image, Rice and Peterson, the Ravens and Vikings, the union.
Resist the urge to think of Peterson or any of the rest as victims today, though. Because nothing is as ugly as the videos and pictures that have haunted the NFL this fall.