Adrian Peterson: Parenting, punishment and race

By Anthony Zurcher
Editor, Echo Chambers

Image source, Getty Images

The initial reaction to the news that Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson had been indicted on child abuse charges was that it was the latest in a string of public relations disasters for the National Football League.

There's a key difference between how discussions are forming over the Peterson episode and the video-recorded elevator fight in which running back Ray Rice punched his then-fiancee, knocking her unconscious.

Once the Rice video was leaked no one - quite understandably - stepped forward to defend his actions. The Peterson story, in which the player is accused of punishing his four-year-old boy by hitting him with a thin tree branch, is fuelling an ongoing debate over when, or whether, it's permissible to use physical punishment as part of child-rearing.

In that way it's become more like the discussion over changing standards of parenting - a mirror image of the "good old days" reminiscences of unsupervised children playing in parks and walking alone to the neighbourhood store.

Back in those halcyon days of youthful freedom, children were also spanked. And hit. And sometimes beaten with belts and sticks.

As the Peterson story indicates, however, those days aren't exactly gone. While studies indicate that corporal punishment for children in the US is declining, a 1995 Gallup survey found 50% of US parents still spank at least once a month, 20% still hit their children with a "hard object" and 5% slapped their children on the face.

A 2014 University of Michigan study found that 30% of US 1-year-olds had been spanked at least once.

It is legal in every US state for a parent to hit a child as long as it is "reasonable" - a definition that can vary based on community standards. Texas, the state in which the Peterson incident took place, has guidelines that advise "a blow that causes a red mark that fades in an hour" is likely not abusive, while more lasting injuries might be judged so.

Image source, NBC/Marist

During investigation of the May incident that left Peterson's son with cuts and welts along his legs, buttocks and genitals, Peterson reportedly told police that the "whooping" he administered was similar to ones he received as a child.

According to the police report Peterson later texted the child's mother: "All my kids will know, hey daddy has the biggie heart but don't play no games when it comes to acting right."

The police report also said that the child had told the officers he had been hit by a belt in the past and that Peterson "has a whooping room".

As news spread, fellow NFL players tweeted that they had similar childhood experiences.

"When I was kid I got so many whoopins I can't even count!" New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram tweeted. "I love both my parents, they just wanted me to be the best human possible!"

"What's child abuse in 2014 was normal in the 80s where I grew up and also with people in my age range," tweeted retired player Donte Stallworth.

Outspoken former professional basketball star Charles Barkley also came to Peterson's defence.

"I'm from the South," he said during CBS's NFL pregame show. "Whipping - we do that all the time. Every black parent in the South is going to be in jail under those circumstances."

He continued: "I think we have to really be careful trying to teach other parents how to discipline their kids. That's a very fine line."

Yahoo Sports's Kelly Dwyer writes that Mr Barkley's "fine line" is bunk.

"Charles Barkley just excused beating a child because his version of the American South had a lot of it when he was growing up in the 1960s," he writes.

Former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason agrees.

"I think Adrian Peterson is in a well of trouble, and I think he should pay a significant price," he said in a radio interview Monday morning. "I don't give a damn how he grew up."

CNN legal analyst Mel Robbins writes that the "cultural excuse is appalling":

"Let's just carry that to a logical conclusion. There was a culture of slavery and racial segregation in the South; does that mean we should carry it on now? Of course not. There's a culture of rape in India right now; does that mean it's OK to carry it on? Of course not."

She says violence against children should be illegal across the board.

"Kids can't protect themselves, and most adults can't control themselves when they get frustrated and angry," she writes.

In the Atlantic, Khadijah White worries that the discussion of a "culture" that's permissive of corporal punishment is becoming racially tinged. Peterson is black - as are most of the players defending him. Many of Peterson's critics - including the ones previously cited - are white. Studies have found that black parents are more likely to spank their children.

"For some folks, the very act of questioning black parenting triggers concerns about racism," she writes. "And for good reason. The absolute devastation of the black family during slavery shaped the very definition of freedom around the ability to raise one's own children."

It will be a travesty if Peterson becomes the symbol of "black male oppression", White writes.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
A Minnesota Vikings fan wearing an Adrian Peterson jersey holds a stick before her team's game on Sunday

"The black community is more than black men; violence is not love," she concludes. "And if you think the media coverage of men like Ray Rice or Adrian Peterson make black people look bad, then just think what it looks like when you defend and justify their abuse."

On Monday morning the Minnesota Vikings announced that Peterson, who had been sidelined for the team's game on Sunday, would be reinstated immediately and allowed to practise and play with the team going forward. The league says it's still reviewing the case.

"To be clear, we take very seriously any matter that involves the welfare of a child," the team stated in a press release announcing the decision. "At this time, however, we believe this is a matter of due process and we should allow the legal system to proceed so we can come to the most effective conclusions and then determine the appropriate course of action."

On Monday afternoon, Peterson also released a statement, which read, in part:

"I am not a perfect son. I am not a perfect husband. I am not a perfect parent, but I am, without a doubt, not a child abuser. I am someone that disciplined his child and did not intend to cause him any injury. No one can understand the hurt that I feel for my son and for the harm I caused him. My goal is always to teach my son right from wrong and that's what I tried to do that day."

When Ray Rice hit his fiancee, he received a two-game suspension - later extended indefinitely following public outcry. Adrian Peterson hits his son with a tree branch - and is arrested for it - and he sits out one game.

One game, even though the NFL is under a harsh spotlight given recent high-profile domestic abuse cases.

Draw your own conclusions.