Tuesday, February 2, 2016
February 2, 2016: Football Debates: Adrian Peterson
[For each of the last few years, I’ve used Super Bowl week to AmericanStudy some football and/or sports topics. This week, I’ll focus on five football debates I haven’t already covered in those series, leading up to a special post on a few Super Bowl L storylines!]
On what’s not surprising about the Peterson debate, and what we must remember nonetheless.
One of the biggest stories of this past NFL season was the return to the field, and to the upper echelon of the league’s players, of Minnesota Vikings running back and former league MVP Adrian Peterson. Peterson was suspended for almost the entire 2014 season after details came to light in early September 2014 of his violent (some, including this AmericanStudier, would argue abusive and criminal, and as that hyperlinked story indicates Peterson did accept a plea deal for those child abuse charges) treatment of his 4 year old son while disciplining him in May 2014. It wasn’t just that Peterson returned, nor that he once again led the league in rushing and led the Vikings to the playoffs; it was that many voices in the sports media, including a controversial Sports Illustrated cover story and a number of commentators on ESPN, went out of their way to defend Peterson and reframe the abuse story in the process.
Even though I disagree entirely with those defenses of Peterson (for reasons I’ll get to in a moment), I will admit to not being very surprised by them. Facebook posts are of course a highly anecdotal way of gathering evidence, but over the last few years one of the most consistent threads I’ve seen in such posts are laments for the absence of corporal punishment in today’s society, complemented by apparent nostalgia for the beatings the posters used to take from their own parents (a perspective voiced by Mike Ditka in the above hyperlinked ESPN story). Most of those I’ve seen posting such sentiments are themselves parents, meaning either that they wish they could discipline their children more physically or (and I suspect this to be the case most of the time) they would not do so yet still are participating in the creation of this myth-making about a corporal punishment-filled past. Myth-making, it’s worth adding, that is part of a larger, just as sweeping and mythic, narrative about kids today being too spoiled and coddled and thus disrespectful and entitled and so on.
So it’s hard to separate debates about corporal punishment from those larger societal narratives—and, I should add, it’s also hard to argue about the Peterson case without recognizing that different parents discipline their children in very different ways, and that such differences are often based on cultural as well as other factors. Yet we can recognize and include all those elements in the debate and still return to this: Peterson stuffed his son’s mouth full of leaves, in order (he himself admits) to silence the child’s cries of pain and protest. As someone who believes strongly in the power of an individual’s voice, and who sees his job first and foremost as helping young people develop and strengthen their own voices, this act of silencing is perhaps the most brutal and abusive part of Peterson’s actions. And as a divorced father for whom, half the time, his son’s voices on the telephone are his daily connections to them, the image of Peterson taking away his child’s voice in this horrible moment in order (I can only assume) to smooth the process for the abuser is one I can’t and won’t forget. Indeed, whatever else we believe and argue in this debate, I believe none of us should forget it.
Next debate tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?