The Lesson Adrian Peterson Couldn’t Teach America

If Adrian Peterson had done what he did to a misbehaving 18-year-old, he wouldn't be on the Cardinals. He'd be behind bars.

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Adrian Peterson standing in a group of people- he is in color while everyone else is black and white

On May 18, 2014, Adrian Peterson watched his 4-year-old son push a sibling off a video game motorcycle. Reacting swiftly, Peterson took out a switch and hit the boy repeatedly on the legs and butt. Later, in court, he would testify that he hit the child’s genitals by accident. Court doctors would also find the marks of other beatings corroborated by the child, who, in his own interview with the police, said that his father also hit him in the face and stuffed a fistful of leaves in his mouth on that fateful spring day.

By September, Peterson was indicted for reckless and negligent injury to a child. It was a massive national story. A star player was being punished for the abuse of a child. Talking heads rushed onto cable to voice outrage or to defend his actions. It seemed, for a few days at least, as though America was on the verge of a national conversation about corporal punishment. Then, as the press rushed to pile onto wall-to-wall coverage, Peterson pled no contest and accepted a plea deal. Peterson was ordered to pay a $4,000 fine, court costs, and perform 80 hours of community service. Peterson was forced by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to sit out the 2015 season even as his renegotiated contract with the Vikings reportedly earned him $20 million. But he did not issue a mea culpa. When he was reinstated in 2016, he was picked up by the New Orleans Saints.

Read more of Fatherly’s stories on discipline, behavior, and parenting.

Last season, the 31-year-old Peterson had the 25th highest selling jersey in the NFL. Saints jerseys flew off the shelves and then Cardinals jerseys flew off the shelves after he was traded to Arizona, where he has a $3.5 million contract that runs through 2019, when he will become a free agent.

If America had been ready for the conversation about where disciplinary action ends and abuse begins, it would have been had in those weeks when Peterson was commuting to and from the courthouse. But that didn’t happen. There was no open dialogue on the subject, though one is desperately needed.

Some 196 countries have signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which calls to ban any sort of physical punishment inflicted on kids. The U.S. has not. Some 51 countries have created laws that ban corporal punishment outright. The U.S. has not. In fact, America may be backsliding. Earlier this year, a bill to end corporal punishment in Arkansas failed and a Texas school reintroduced paddling as a punishment option for teachers. It remains perfectly legal in 17 other states to physically punish students despite overwhelming scientific evidence that the effects of this sort of behavior are predictably and overwhelmingly negative.

Which is why the Peterson trial — one of the most high-profile cases surrounding corporal punishment in American history — felt like the moment child rights advocates needed. And also why what happened remains dispiriting years later.

The judge called the prosecutors “media whores”; Rusty Hardin did what his celebrity defense lawyers do and kept the conversation superficial; and the media kept the coverage superficial. Prosecutor Brett Ligon summed it up best after the trial: “We had an opportunity to move the dialogue on child abuse in a positive direction, and now we are all left with the feeling that this case and those conversations are disappointingly cut short.” In other words, the trial was not one to make American families proud.

“Why are children special in this circumstance? They’re not an alien species.”

If Adrian Peterson had done what he did to a misbehaving 18-year-old, he would very likely still be behind bars. How can that be true? In most American courtrooms, children have fewer rights than adults. Peterson hit his 4-year-old child and so the law was, for the most part, on his side. This legal perversity stems from the fact that the Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act does not provide specific definitions of physical abuse, neglect, or emotional abuse.

“Why are children special in this circumstance?” asks says Anne Sheridan, President, National Youth Rights Association. “They’re not an alien species. We’re not even really having the right conversation. The baseline we should be starting with is that hitting people is wrong. When hitting your wife was legal, the same argument came up.”

Still, the American legal system gives the benefit of the doubt to parents disciplining their children. Intent is almost invariably assumed to be good even when there is no potential good outcome to derive from harsh disciplinary behavior. The reason for this is fairly clear: The parental bond is so strong that emotional narrative crowds out data. “I know in my heart there’s not many fathers better than me,” Peterson told Sports Illustrated after the trial. “I’m that father that the kids run to. I’m the father they want to wrestle and play with.” Peterson may genuinely believe that, but hitting a kid with a switch then stuffing leaves in his mouth is not debatably bad. Data shows this sort of action hurts children, full stop.

And Sheridan is right: Replace the word “father” in the quote with the word “husband.” It sounds ridiculous. The cultural power of “parenthood” clouds the rhetoric of violence because there hasn’t been a discussion of abusive parenting in the same way there has been a discussion of abusive relationships.

Sheridan offers up a social experiment to illustrate the absurdity of Peterson’s focus on his intention. “Ask someone, ‘Is hitting people wrong?’ Then ask, ‘What if the person you’re hitting doesn’t really understand what is going on?’ Then ask, ‘What if you really want the person to listen to you?’ Non-sociopaths will point out that there’s no exception to the no-hitting policy for confusion or communication. If we had the conversation about corporal punishment this way, it would point out the flaws in these arguments.”

That said, intent is clearly something our legal system must recognize when it comes to measuring the degrees of an action. For example, there’s murder, there’s manslaughter, and there’s negligent homicide. It should be noted that all of these are illegal, but to varying degrees. There is no equivalent to this in regards to the abuse of children.

“Even when your intent comes from the right place, you can still say the action is not the right action,” says Sheridan. “We have to say that philosophically. You can’t focus 100 percent on the intention.”

Is Adrian Peterson a child abuser? Americans lack the tools to supply a reasoned answer.

It’s a common defense from parents who physically punish their children: “I was hit and I turned out fine.” Often enough, the thinking goes further and “tough love” becomes a point of pride. “We have this whole cultural narrative that corporal punishment is the right thing to do and that you’re negligent if you don’t do it,” says Sheridan.

Social scientists are quick to point out that there are consequences to these actions — kids who are simply spanked are more prone to mental health problems, cognitive difficulties, aggression, and antisocial tendencies. Adrian Peterson was just as quick to argue that the divide between corporal punishment and not is cultural. In that same 2016 interview with Sports Illustrated, he spoke about his own experience.

“Roger Goodell, man, I don’t know. . . . This is when I knew he was blind to the fact of what I was going through. I sat down with him. He asked me, ‘What is a whuppin’? . . . It kind of showed me we were on a totally different level. It’s just the way of life. … in Texas, we know what whuppin’s are. … you still shouldn’t pass judgment on people when you don’t know.”

Why is a whuppin’ something that is well known to anyone from East Texas, but entirely foreign to somebody raised in Jamestown, New York? This is a question that was teased throughout the Peterson trial but never fully answered. “Maybe we need to rethink it,” Charles Barkley, a native of Alabama, said on CBS sports in 2014 in defense of Peterson. “But I think we have to really be careful trying to teach other parents how to discipline their kids. That’s a very fine line.”

It’s a fine line, to be sure, but it’s not impossibly fine. There are legal means of handling cases involving fights. When, post-bar fight, two adults wind up in front of a judge, there is a legal way to get beyond the “who started it” conversation. The focus shifts to physical violence. If you used it, you’re in the wrong — there are certain ways people are not permitted to interfere with each other.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the case of Oakland Raider cornerback Sean Smith (charged with assault and battery for allegedly accosting his sister’s boyfriend), and Adrian Peterson is that there are laws and cultural norms around adults fighting. Because the laws drawing a distinction between discipline and child abuse are ambiguous and norms are hardly universal — they differ across race, region, religion, and even inclination — it’s hard not to punt when it comes time to answer concrete questions.

Is Adrian Peterson a child abuser? Americans lack the tools to supply a reasoned answer.

In order to answer that question, we would need a firmer definition of what a child abuser actually is and getting there will require a national and likely political discourse.

“It’s how we look at it … it’s a societal problem. Why do we inflict this punishment that we wouldn’t inflict on adults?”

What will it take to have a national conversation about physically punishing children? Ireland, a country where corporal punishment has long been accepted, offered up one solution in 2015. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs James Reilly helped shepherd legislation that forbade the physical punishment of kids at home, doing away with a legal loophole allowing for “reasonable chastisement” of children. This was a big deal for in a country where, according to one study, nearly half of primary caregivers admitted to smacking their kids on occasion.

The move did not come from a populist uprising — one poll showed that some 52 percent of people were against parents being banned from slapping their children — but it was the right thing to do. “We have not created any new offense, but rather we are removing something that has its roots in a completely different era and societal context,” says Reilly.

The tough thing about the process was, naturally, that it required a degree of inter-generational truth-telling. To do better, parents must acknowledge that their parents were flawed. That’s a psychological hurdle to progress, but —perhaps ironically — surmountable thanks largely to intent.

During Peterson’s trial, then-ESPN talking head and former wide receiver Cris Carter made some of the biggest headlines when he faced his truth and offered this: “My mom did the best job she could do, raising seven kids by herself. But there are thousands of things that I have learned since then that my mom was wrong … You can’t beat a kid to make them do what you want to do.”

Those who responded to his statement by saying that the government should not punish parents who are trying to do their best are likely right. But punishing behavior regardless of intent is a practical measure and a fairly clean solution — so long as everyone knows precisely what the banned behaviors are. The Peterson case drew so much attention and still feels so unresolved because the narrative never made sense. Peterson was punished but didn’t entirely accept blame. The law called what was clearly a beating “negligence.” The conversation about “whuppin'” ended in a deadlock despite scientific consensus. There was plenty of cognitive dissonance to go around.

Such complicated problems ultimately require simple solutions. But, unfortunately, complicated conversations are necessary to find those ways forward.

“It’s how we look at it … it’s a societal problem,” offers Sheridan. “Why do we inflict this punishment that we wouldn’t inflict on adults?”

Until an effort is made to truly and profoundly answer that question, a real public conversation on the topic of abuse will not have been had in America. And the ugly truth is that — far more than parents — that failure to seize even the most obvious opportunities for that discussion endangers children.

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