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Sunday, September 14, 2014
Dark Days in the NFL

Mug shot of Minnesota Vikings' Adrian Peterson, taken after he turned himself in to the Montgomery County Jail early Saturday.The Adrian Peterson situation, aside from coming at the worst possible moment for the NFL, raises two difficult ethical questions.

In the Sports Law context, the question is what is the right thing for the NFL and the team to do when one of its players commits a despicable act off the field. As the NFL belatedly learned in the Ray Rice affair, a wrong answer will be a public relations nightmare. Rice is certainly not the first professional athlete to be guilty of spousal abuse, though no one else ever left such a visual record. And if anything is considered an equal or greater wrong than beating your wife, it is child abuse. The facts are still out on whether Peterson is guilty of the charges leveled against him. Obviously, there is no tape. Still, it is worth the inquiry.

The answer to the ethical question, however, should not depend on the existence of a videotape or even a media or public outcry. The answer should be a function of whether the team and the league believe the player’s offense reflects such a failure of character as to be inconsistent with how each organization sees itself and its mission. It is worth discussing whether the fact that the perpetrator is a professional athlete as opposed to an associate attorney or corporate CEO should make a difference. Certainly, when an employee is the public face of an organization, termination is an appropriate response to an immoral or heinous act. The NFL’s current problems stem from its flipping from too weak a response to feigned outrage over information it had all along. Doing the right thing misses the point when it is done the wrong way.

Must the offending act also be illegal? Suppose the player cheats on his dying spouse, squanders the nest egg of his elderly parents, or refuses to donate perfectly matching bone marrow to his brother. Should the team cut its ties with such a lowlife? Any employer should have the right not to be associated with individuals it deems morally bankrupt, so long as such decisions do not depend largely on how good the player is on the field.

Adrian Peterson, of course, is not just any football player. He is one of the real superstars of the game. And he is the face of the Minnesota Vikings.

His case also raises an ethical quandary outside the sports context. When does society have the right to interfere in the parent child relationship? Parents across cultural and geographical divides have had different concepts of what kind of discipline is appropriate. We have all heard tales of kids in days gone by getting “whoopings” by a switch behind the barn. We live in a different time, if there ever really was a time when such beatings were appropriate. When such discipline results in broken bones, or cuts and bruises, or deep emotional scars, parents may have crossed the line of what is acceptable. A Texas jury will decide. So must the NFL and the Vikings.


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