Adrian Peterson and the Subjectivity of Savagery

Peterson's case casts a spotlight on the NFL, yet our corporal punishment laws remain in the shadows

Adrian Peterson during a game on September 7th, 2014 in St. Louis, Missouri. Credit: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Imagine how much differently the last two weeks could have gone for the NFL.

Were it on the right side of the issues, the league could have boldly addressed some of our most pressing societal ills: Domestic violence. Child abuse. Excessive celebration.

Instead, the National Football League has flouted all of our most coveted cultural traditions. First it bravely defied the protection of women as a guiding social principle with impotent punishments against ogres like Ray Rice and Greg Hardy. Then the NFL courageously sacked the safeguarding of children with the Vikings' reinstatement of Adrian Peterson.

The team has since placed him on the league's exempt list "after giving the situation additional thought," though in this case, said situation probably refers as much to the suspension of sponsorship by the Radisson hotel chain as it does any suspension Peterson may be due.

If this sinking ship were the Titanic, the cry would be "women and children last." That's the consequence of letting the marketplace decide what used to be the province of boring, unprofitable stuff like ethics and decency.

But while there are similarities between Rice and Peterson – both are running backs, both ran the 40 in 4.4 seconds, both resorted to violence – their cases are not the same. Not as far as the law is concerned. And calls for punishment consistent with the more recent discipline Rice has received are misdirected.

Nineteen states allow school faculty to hit children, while almost every state in the union allows it in the home. Behavior that would ordinarily constitute felony assault against an adult is considered justifiable discipline when applied to a child. For comparison, 38 nations prohibit the kind of physical punishment legally administered to children in the U.S., including such progressive outposts as South Sudan, the Republic of Congo and Turkmenistan.

Here's how Texas statute 22.04, the law in the state where Peterson's admitted "whooping" occurred, defines the abuse of a child: "Intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence" causing "serious bodily injury; serious mental deficiency, impairment, or injury; or bodily injury."

Adrian Peterson gets a helmet, pads and targeting rules to protect his safety. His kid gets a couple of semicolons.

Now, put the previous statute in practical terms. Better yet, ask the typical person serving on a jury to do it. Because prosecution for child abuse ultimately hinges on community standards of reasonable corporal punishment. Call it the subjectivity of savagery.

Where else in our nation's legal codes are gray areas left open to reasonable interpretations of unprovoked physical violence?

The great paradox of our attitude towards kids in this country is that they're our most vulnerable, defenseless citizens, in need of the strictest protections; yet we deny them those protections and pass laws permitting violence against only them.

The laws in some cases are parodies of themselves.

One instance in which the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services prohibits corporal punishment: foster care. In an interview with the Forth Worth Star-Telegram, an agency spokesperson was quoted as saying, "Children who are in foster care have all been victimized in some way… some have suffered physical abuse and many have witnessed violence in their homes and families, so using corporal punishment would be inappropriate."

Texas law acknowledges that violence is inappropriate, yet only protects children who have already been victims of it. Can you imagine a law that outlawed rape only when the victim has previously been assaulted? It's a mirror of our culture's ongoing abhorrence of sex but acceptance of violence.

In this country, it doesn't take much for a star of the stage, screen or field to draw scorn for not being an upstanding role model. But what kind of role models are we being when we beat a child with a paddle?

Research has show that aggression only begets more aggression. So disciplining your child with violence might keep him from pulling his sister's hair in the immediate term, it's also demonstrating that physical violence is an acceptable path to conflict resolution in the long-term.

Kinda the way it did for little Adrian Peterson.

It's been argued that children have been disciplined this way since time immemorial, an old-school means of behavior correction for which parents are not to be judged. Given that, and most existing state laws – which we as citizens support either actively or tacitly – I don't have the right to comment on how you deal with your child. My contempt must instead be reserved for years later, when that child is an adult who sees violence as a means to an end.

It's because of these laws that those who physically discipline their children – an estimated 80 percent of American parents – are better protected than those they abuse.

It's because of these laws that we can no sooner make Peterson accountable for beating a child in Texas than we can make him accountable for carrying an assault rifle into an Olive Garden.

By all means judge Adrian Peterson. Excoriate him. Hang him in the square of public opinion and set fire to your number 28 jersey. But, like most rage, it's off-mark. The fury and condemnation being leveled at Peterson is better spent on neighbors and legislators, whose collective action is the only way to ensure that a kid's only defenders aren't also his attackers.