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Opinion

Readers React: Adrian Peterson and the whitewashing of child abuse

Adrian Peterson
Adrian Peterson looks on from the sideline during a game against the St. Louis Rams on Sept. 7.
(Dilip Vishwanat / Getty Images)

Truth be told, I hadn’t read the details of what Adrian Peterson is accused of doing to his child before deciding to write a post expressing a smidgen of sympathy for the Minnesota Vikings running back. No parent is perfect, and we routinely violate the lofty standards we set for ourselves before our kids were born. (No iPads or TV for two years; books only; no eating out or processed foods -- sound familiar?)

Thankfully, I have yet to cross the bright yellow line on corporal punishment I drew long before my kids were born two years ago. Perhaps it helps that I’m something of pacifist (or a wimp -- whatever you’d like to call it), but even so, parenting small children can be so indescribably frustrating that it’s within anyone’s ability to “snap” out of extreme exhaustion and anger and momentarily strike a child.

Something like that, I imagined, is what is alleged to have happened with Peterson and his son.

Then I read this report on the gruesome details of the Peterson case, and not only did any pangs of sympathy for Peterson cease, but it also became clear how easy it is for anyone -- even someone who stridently opposes spanking and other legally acceptable forms of corporal punishment -- to whitewash child abuse.

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As a father, it’s too traumatic for me to reproduce here the “punishment” that police say Peterson doled out to his 4-year-old child (a reader does that in a brief letter below). But even that wasn’t what jumped out most from this story; rather, it was how casually Peterson acquitted himself of any wrongdoing on account of his good “intent":

“When Peterson was asked how he felt about the incident, he said, ‘To be honest with you, I feel very confident with my actions because I know my intent.’ He also described the incident as a ‘normal whooping’ in regards to the ‘welps’ on the child’s buttocks, but that he felt bad immediately when he saw the injuries on the child’s legs. Peterson estimated he ‘swatted’ his son ’10 to 15' times, but he’s not sure because he doesn’t ‘ever count how many pops I give my kids,’” reads a  CBS News report out of Houston.

“Peterson went on to reiterate again how much he loves all his kids, and only ‘whoops’ them because he wants them to do right. Toward the end of the interview, Peterson said he would reconsider using switches in the future, but said he would never ‘eliminate whooping my kids … because I know how being spanked has helped me in my life.’”

Peterson’s grim rationalization might sound familiar to anyone who’s listened to someone try to square his disapproval of child abuse with his use of spanking or any other form widely practiced corporal punishment: The point isn’t to inflict pain or fear, it’s to teach a lesson about consequences. It’s never about what the child actually feels and learns; it’s about what the parent wants the child to feel and learn. 

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I’ve heard perfectly civilized people lay out the process they use to punish their children in sterile detail: Explain why the kid is getting a spanking, execute said punishment and then, after the whole ordeal, talk about what happened, sometimes ending with a reassuring “I love you.” Peterson detailed to police a similar ritual with his own kids, and my response is the same as I’ve had with others: If the actual hitting isn’t the point, then why include it? As some kind of cruel reminder that as the larger, stronger person in this relationship you wield benevolent dictatorial power and could inflict more pain and injury if you wanted? 

Of course, Peterson is accused of doing something far worse than spanking. But the justification Peterson gave police for the brutality he is accused of showing his young son sounds eerily similar to the reasons many loving, nurturing parents give for hitting their children in more legally permissible ways. What “lesson” any of these punishments teach a child other than that big people can hit smaller people with impunity is beyond me. 

Readers have also weighed in on Peterson’s legal troubles; several derided the NFL and Peterson’s team for not taking disciplinary action against the running back, especially in the wake of former Baltimore Ravens star Ray Rice’s indefinite suspension after surveillance video showed him punching and knocking out his then-fiancee in an elevator. 

Oren M. Spiegler of Upper Saint Clair, Pa., says the latest NFL embarrassment is a microcosm of a declining civilization:

There you go again, National Football League, seeking to skirt controversy when another player has brought disgrace and dishonor to himself, his family and to the sport.

Peterson was indicted for beating his son with a stick, but who cares? He is expected to continue to play because his team considers him to be a good guy overall!

Apologists for an accused child abuser are attempting to mainstream the deviance, telling us that this is normal behavior for someone with Peterson’s upbringing. Peterson tells us that this was the type of discipline to which he was subjected as a youth: a sad situation, but one which provides no excuse for modern-day brutality. 

One would think that an individual who lost another one of his children to violence at the hands of another man, as Peterson did, would have a sensitivity to it and a desire to protect, cherish and nurture a surviving son.

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No doubt there will be those who set aside character and basic human decency, football fanatics who will continue to idolize Peterson, to cheer for him and to wear his jersey unless and until he is taken away from the sport, something that is not likely to happen given his athletic ability. If we seek to learn why civilization is breaking down, a look at professional football will serve as a valuable guide. It is shameful.

New York City resident Edward Drossman says NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s job should be on the line:

You can’t beat a woman or a dog in the NFL, but you can allegedly beat your kids. NFL Commissioner Roger S. Goodell, who initially gave Rice a two-game ban, came back and suspended Rice indefinitely.

Groups need to act and put pressure on Goodell to give Peterson a lifetime ban. If Goodell doesn’t act, he needs to be fired.

David Ulrey of Del Mar says “discipline” is a euphemism:

Allegedly stuffing leaves into your child’s mouth and hitting him repeatedly in his buttocks until he is bleeding is not discipline. It is child abuse and it is a crime.

Hiding behind the word “discipline” is full of denial. And that is what scares me.

Follow Paul Thornton on Twitter @PaulMThornton

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