Peterson’s Punishment

The NFL came down hard on star running back Adrian Peterson, suspending him effectively for the rest of the season without pay despite his having already missed nine games and had his legal case adjudicated. He and the union strenuously object, and plenty of legal wrangling remains
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The NFL’s decision to suspend Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson without pay for the rest of the 2014 season—and perhaps longer—is, at first glance, a stunning and harsh rebuke for a player who already has been taken off the field for nine of 10 Vikings games this season. But after closer review, it should not have been surprising.

The league handed Peterson a six-game ban, minimum, that will cost him $4.14 million. Commissioner Roger Goodell has already said—in modifying the Personal Conduct Policy in August—that he plans to make first violations of the league’s assault, battery or domestic violence statute punishable by a ban of at least six games. So the six-game ban seems hardly coincidental.

The reaction on several fronts to the Peterson ban was swift:

• The NFL Players Association announced it would appeal the verdict, and went further, saying it would also demand a neutral third-party arbitrator to hear the appeal—not commissioner Roger Goodell. The 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement between players and owners gives Goodell the right to hear such appeals, and though the league is considering a new Personal Conduct Policy that could remove Goodell as the everyday disciplinarian on cases such as this, it’s not believed that Goodell would cede his authority before the new policy is in place.

• Peterson is awaiting word on his grievance to be removed from the Commissioner’s Exempt List now that his legal case has been decided. The decision on that grieveance, from arbitrator Shyam Das, could come as early as today. Theoretically, Peterson could be eligible to play this Sunday at home against Green Bay, if he is removed from the exempt list and wins his appeal to be reinstated immediately, or if the appeal of his suspension is pending. That, though, is still probably a long shot. Which leads to …

• The Vikings, whose stance on accepting Peterson back has been shrouded in uncertainty. The team's statement this morning said only: “We respect the league’s decision and will have no further comment at this time.” Minnesota's final shot at getting back into the playoff race likely rests on Sunday’s game, so this could be the last game that matters for the Vikings this season. The team would have to quickly decide two things: whether Peterson is in any shape to play a game after sitting out for 75 days, and whether the organization would want Peterson active.

Peterson agreed to a plea-bargain of a misdemeanor reckless assault charge in Montgomery County, Texas, on Nov. 4, stemming from an incident in which he lashed his 4-year-old son with a switch—a tree branch—last May. Disturbing images of the child’s legs, showing multiple open wounds and broken skin, made the case more than just a national referendum on corporal punishment. It was viewed in many quarters, and in the league office, as child abuse.

The NFL wanted Peterson to appear during a hearing last week at the league office to discuss what kind of counseling and education he had been taking part in during his time away from football. In essence, the league wanted to be sure Peterson was on track not to repeat the behavior. Peterson chose not to attend that meeting—the NFLPA objected to the league’s hearing process, based in large part on the fact that it claimed the league reneged on an agreement to have him immediately removed from the Commissioner’s Exempt List. And so the league went ahead late last week and over the weekend in deciding Peterson’s punishment—which appears harsh based on the fact that he was found guilty of a misdemeanor, and the league often uses local jurisprudence as a major gauge of deciding how to rule on player discipline.

Though the NFL believes Peterson was not irreparably harmed by his time on the Commissioner’s Exempt List because he was paid for the last nine weeks off the field, Peterson and the NFLPA believe that the fact he was paid should have little bearing on the case. They view the nine weeks away as being part of the discipline in the case, though it wasn't called that. So Peterson and his side doesn’t view this as a six-game ban. They view it as a 15-game ban, and they think that’s too much for the offense that was committed.

It’s clear the league feels Peterson has not been remorseful enough about the incident, which contributed to the sanction. As commissioner Roger Goodell wrote to Peterson today: “We are prepared to put in place a program that can help you to succeed, but no program can succeed without your genuine and continuing engagement. You must commit yourself to your counseling and rehabilitative effort, properly care for your children, and have no further violations of law or league policy.’’

Regarding Peterson’s approach since the incident, Goodell wrote: “You have shown no meaningful remorse for your conduct. When indicted, you acknowledged what you did but said that you would not ‘eliminate whooping my kids’ and defended your conduct in numerous published text messages to the child’s mother. You also said that you felt ‘very confident with my actions because I know my intent.’ These comments raise the serious concern that you do not fully appreciate the seriousness of your conduct, or even worse, that you may feel free to engage in similar conduct in the future … Public statements attributed to you indicate that you believe that this kind of discipline is appropriate and that you do not intend to stop disciplining your children this way.”

The NFLPA's response was blunt and underscored the chasm that exists between the league and its players: "The decision by the NFL to suspend Adrian Peterson is another example of the credibility gap that exists between the agreements they make and the actions they take. Since Adrian’s legal matter was adjudicated, the NFL has ignored their obligations and attempted to impose a new and arbitrary disciplinary proceeding."

Goodell said he will begin periodic reviews of Peterson’s progress on April 15, 2015, to judge whether he should be reinstated. But the next step in this case will happen long before that—this week, when Peterson presses his case to return to the field immediately.

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