Does Adrian Peterson’s Actions Speak Louder Than His Words?

Interests are advanced by power, while ideas and values depend on thought and can be promoted only in a community of people who think for themselves and with others.

Thomas E. McCollough
The Moral Imagination and Public Life

The Peterson Questions: Should he be in jail? Should he lose his job? The first question was answered November 4, when the charges, based on a plea deal, were reduced from a felony -reckless or negligent injury to a child to a misdemeanor – a lesser charge of reckless assault. Whether Peterson should have gone to jail or not is debatable. Is time in jail the most effective punishment? Will it be a deterrent for other football players? Can the family recover? And, what does a four-year old do with, ‘I made Daddy go to jail? ‘

Will Peterson lose his job? Not If reporters and fellow players who think he has suffered enough and the fans who think he was just doing what a parent is suppose to do have anything to do with it. Not if the grievance filed by the NFLPA on behalf of Peterson makes the NFL fumble its corporate football more than the thought of loosing millions of sponsor dollars. Not if the words of the Mother of the abused little boy, who “Hope the NFL doesn’t impose additional punishment,” carries any weight. Should he lose his job? What good would it do? What would it change?

Here is the problem. Nobody would be wrestling with either of these questions if Adrian Peterson was an ordinary black man, the one making $31,300 a year working for an ordinary company doing an ordinary job. Chances are there would have been no plea bargain. If there were such a plea, state child protection impact services would be wrapped around Mr. Ordinary Adrian Peterson tighter than Saran Wrap around a store-bought sandwich. Your answer to the question at the end of my November 7 post ‘Power and money or the safety and protection of all children’ is_______

Peterson’s job is up in the air but he got off with no jail time, a fine, community service, and the permission of the court to resumed immediate contact with his Son. But, this is what privilege looks like. It is what happens when privilege is afforded not because of skin color but because of connection. As authors Christakis and Fowler discuss in CONNECTED, culture is local in ‘the sense of being confined to groups of interconnected people in one region or niche of the social network rather than in one geographic place or among one group defined by shared religion, language or ethnicity.’ This is the culture into which Adrian Peterson has assimilated. He has earned his place in it and therefore do not have to justify or apologize for it. But, our black culture cannot be the blanket he uses to cover his ass when he needs an excuse of doing something that is just plain wrong.

A lesser charge does not change the meaning of what Peterson did to his four-year old son. But there is another reason I think 80 hours of community service, 40 of which will be used for public service announcements, and a $4000 fine is about as adequate a punishment as a drop of water would be for the severe three-year drought California has endured. There is something Peterson is not getting. He said, “I did not intend to hurt my son.” I think that is true. He says every chance he gets, “I love my son.” I believe he does. He said, “I take full responsibility.” I think he believes he has. Even though Peterson has offered more excuses than reasons: Throwing Bonita and Frankie all the way under the “It is your fault” bus. Blaming his culture. Blaming his Son. Blaming the switch – I believe everything he has said represents sincere efforts to get the public to understand and maybe even accept his point of view. Peterson has said, “I’m sorry.” more times than I can count. I think he is. But if I accept the Rules of a True Apology (Harriet Lerner, Ph.D.; Psychology Today September 2014), I also have to question the worth of Peterson’s apology. According to Lerner, a true apology (1) does not include the word “But.” (2) Focus on your actions, not the other person’s response. (3) Does not include who started it and who is to blame. (4) Indicate that you will do your best to avoid a repeat performance. (5) Does not make your pain and remorse overshadow the feeling of the person you hurt.

If Peterson’s told the police, He “regret his son didn’t cry” because he (Peterson) would have known the switch was doing more damage than he intended;” if he said in a text to his Son’s mother you are “going to be mad about one of the scars – the one on the child’s leg;” and if after gesturing to hit another of his four-year old sons in June 2013, causing the child to flinch and hit his head on the car seat, Peterson texted, “I felt bad but he did it to his-self,” his apologizes violate the rules of a true apology.

In all fairness, Peterson did say, he wants to learn from his mistakes and be a better father so it is not that he has not said the right words, put together the right phrase. It is, I think related to whether he thinks he did anything wrong. I can understand his not wanting to be called a child abuser but he seems unable to acknowledge that his behavior was abusive.

Inflicting injury or causing someone to injure his self and transferring responsibility for the injury to that person happens more often than we probably want to acknowledge. Suppose I do something that I cannot deny doing. I am sorry I did it but I am as concerned about what you think of me, as I am sorry. In order to resolve this dilemma, I have to figure out how to make myself less blameworthy. So, I offer a justification for my behavior by saying something that will shift a portion of the blame to you. If I am successful, the image I want you to have of me (Role Model, Hero, Martyr, Victim, etc.) will stay in tact. I will be judged less harshly and the negative consequences will be less severe. Transferring blame from self to a peer is understandable if not acceptable. But the transfer from adult-to-child should be unacceptable and troublesome because it increases the child’s vulnerability and therefore the possibility of repeating the behavior that led to the initial physical and/or emotional abuse because the child is between some rocks and a hard place: It must be my fault. I don’t know what I did to make him that mad but I will work real hard not to do it again and even harder to please him and even harder than that acting like I do not remember what he did to me. The child’s desire to maneuver these rocks is strong. His capacity to do so? Zilch.

Adults who shift the blame to a child tend not to understand what is age-appropriate. They have unrealistic expectations, are demanding and impatient with little or no tolerance for anything less than a quick and correct response to an order to do or stop doing something. Consequently, the child will mess up. The adult will mete out a punishment that will be harsher than he intend. The adult will be sorry and will explain why the child has to take some of the blame for the abuse. The child will be between some more rocks in that same hard place. And, the adult will continue to defy the age-old adage, “Actions speak louder than words.”

For the benefit of Peterson’s supporters, I am not saying this is exactly who Peterson is but this is a parent/child situation that lends itself perfectly to “What if’” questions. Since they are my favorite, I cannot pass up the opportunity to ask a few. “What if Peterson did not see the switch wrapping around his son leg because on the day he beat his son, he had also as he admitted at his first court appearance, “smoked a little weed?” What if Peterson continues to think hitting a four-year old boy “10 to 15 times with his pants down is proof of “Never going overboard?” What if he continues to believe he gave his son, “A normal spanking.” What if he thinks “fully cooperating with law enforcement and voluntarily testifying before the grand jury” will convince his non-supporters that he is not that word he does not want to be called? What if he does have a “whooping room” and what if it is down the hall from his man cave? (I made up the man cave part) What if hitting and pushing his pre-school sons is as much about ‘manning-up, not being soft or acting like a punk as it is about discipline?

None of us know the answers to these or other what if questions you may be asking. But answers will not matter if there is another child abuse incident. Someone said, “If you have to Err, let it be on the side of the child. Taking action on behalf of just one child may prevent harm from coming to other children.“ That is the best reason, in my opinion, for making sure the $14,000,000 a year Adrian Peterson gets the same support and oversight that would be court-ordered for the $31,300 Adrian Peterson. It would most likely include but not be limited to court mandated individual, family and child therapies, parenting classes, anger management, limited supervised visits with son and since there was a previous report of child abuse (Reportedly not investigated) home studies to determine if visits with his other children need to be supervised.

After his November 4 court appearance, Peterson supporters, some of whom still insist that he would never do anything to hurt his child, want him back on the field immediately. As one said, “The NFL put him on paid leave, gave him time to address his legal issues without adding to the stress of an already fragile family situation and lost of income.” How football-ish of them? One of his supporters ask us to imagine the power of Peterson and the NFL taking this opportunity to help parents understand the difference between child abuse and punishment. Peterson seems to support his supporter. He said, as he left court, “I am just glad this is over.” Since then he has been vocal about wanting to get back on the field. He says the NFL investigation is unfair and he should be allowed to play until a decision is made. Now, here is what worries me. What if Peterson does not know it is not over for him. It is not over for his wife or the mothers of his other children and that it has just begun for the child who was beaten and all of his siblings? If he knew, would he, instead of being impatient and accusatory, be thinking about this time differently? Would he be filled with gratitude because unlike other fathers and mothers who beat children years older than his son, he is not getting up every morning putting on a shirt with big bold prison numbers stamped on the back or going to sleep every night in 8 by 6 cell or waiting for his once-a-week visiting day? Would he be using this time to begin the process of healing for his self and his family that will go along way “toward learning from his mistakes and being a better father?”

As for some of his supporters, I think they are encouraging him to put the cart before the horse.

Peterson has earned the right to be called the best starting Running Back in the NFL so he is obviously capable of seeing how things fit together. He clearly understands cause and effect. But what if, for some reason he is not making the connection between his treatment of his son and the perception of him as a child abuser? Peterson needs to make this connection because as surely as he will make another amazing run across another of America’s football fields, one of his seven children, will say a bad word, push someone and/or engage in sibling rivalry, especially if he is the visiting child competing with the child who gets to live with Daddy all the time, Peterson will once again demonstrates what happens when a parent does not know hitting a four-year old long enough and hard enough to ‘bruise his back, legs, hands, scrotum and buttock is nothing less than a beating. Beating equals abuse.


4 thoughts on “Does Adrian Peterson’s Actions Speak Louder Than His Words?

    • Thanks Lamar. There’s a lot of speculation about why the NFL suspended Peterson for the rest of the season. I don’t care what the motivation is. It was the right thing to do. This one is for the kid. And, maybe suspending a NFL player as valuable as Peterson will send a message to all current and budding abusers of children and woman.

  1. Very thought provoking piece. I do not know much about the particular incident you refer to however your thoughts on apologies and privilege really got me thinking. I am sad that our world affords privileges to some that others don’t get, especially in the areas of health and education (and crime!). And apologies, yes about including ‘but’! How can an apology be genuine with that word there!

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