The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Wednesday:
Most rules of football are precise, as are the punishments for committing penalties. But some infractions are judgment calls. The ball is snapped, a linebacker blitzes and the quarterback goes down in a heap: clean hit or cheap shot? Referees usually get it right, and the honest fan knows whether to cheer or boo.
If Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings had scored a touchdown this Sunday, several days after being charged with a felony for beating his son, it would have felt wrong to cheer. We know too much about his off-field behavior. The National Football League and the Vikings had no choice but to reverse the team’s Monday decision to reinstate Peterson, and instead keep him off the field. That reversal was announced early Wednesday.
We offer that verdict not to isolate or demonize Peterson individually, but because a broader principle should apply to him and to other athletes accused of serious wrongdoing: Unless and until they’re exonerated or suitably punished, they should sit. They should not be gladiators in the arena, performing for the cheering throng.
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Peterson, a star running back, faces a terrible abuse allegation in Texas for using a switch – a stripped down tree branch – to inflict corporal punishment on his 4-year-old son. A state grand jury indicted Peterson last week for reckless or negligent injury to a child.
Media reports paint a sickening description of the allegations: The child suffered numerous cuts and bruises to his back, ankles, legs and scrotum from being struck as many as 10 to 15 times. Peterson acknowledges delivering the beating but described it as a disciplinary measure, not abuse, and said he did not intentionally cause the injuries.
After he posted bail, Peterson was deactivated for last Sunday’s game, which the Vikings lost. The team reinstated him Monday, saying it would allow the legal process to proceed. Odds are that if the case comes to trial, that won’t be until next year – when Peterson may or may not still be a Viking. The NFL has said nothing about Peterson, while a sponsor, Radisson hotels, suspended its relationship with the team.
The issue of star athletes facing criminal allegations isn’t new to sports, yet what the NFL now faces in its caseload is staggering. And staggering is how the league appears to be reacting.
• Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens got a two-game suspension from the NFL this summer for punching his fiancee into unconsciousness. That punishment was extended to an indefinite suspension after video of the beating surfaced this month. As a result of the video, Rice also was dropped by the team. He is expected to appeal the suspension. The NFL Players Association has appealed the suspension.
• The San Francisco 49ers’ Ray McDonald continues to play while facing domestic violence charges, though the team suspended its radio play-by-play announcer for careless comments he made about domestic abuse.
• Meanwhile, Greg Hardy took a paid leave of absense on Wednesday from the Carolina Panthers after sitting out last week. Hardy is appealing a July guilty verdict on domestic violence charges.
The teams evidently don’t know which way to run, and the league is not helping. Panthers coach Ron Rivera sounded genuinely confused about his decision to sit Hardy, essentially benching him for being a distraction, not for his actual behavior.
In American society, we declare people accused of misconduct innocent until proven guilty – but that’s in the realm of constitutional rights and criminal justice. Workplaces, by contrast, generally have wider latitude to impose penalties.
That’s why authority figures and others whose jobs are in the public eye or who may possess a level of moral authority (politicians and educators, for example) can be held accountable for their actions before the courts decide legal guilt or innocence. In professional sports, contracts include a morals or conduct clause that gives the teams and leagues room to react to credible accusations that a player or coach has seriously misbehaved.
The argument that athletes should be judged by their character – that they are role models – has been weakened some by all the bad behavior over the years, but it’s still a valid ideal.
So yes, athletes, teams and leagues owe the public an expectation of decency that is above and separate from what may happen through the legal system. That means in cases of serious allegations of wrongdoing, there should be no hesitation to suspend the player or team official for a set period of time – long enough for the absence to have an impact on the team, and be noticed and digested by the public.
Unsportsmanlike conduct should be recognized and punished not only on the playing field but wherever it occurs.