The (foot)ball’s in our court



The buck stops here on domestic violence and abuse

By Natalie Serafini, Editor-in-Chief

On September 12, Vikings running-back Adrian Peterson was charged with child abuse. The victim in his alleged abuse was Peterson’s four-year-old son, who he had allegedly struck repeatedly with a branch from a tree.

Initially, Peterson was removed from the game against the New England Patriots on September 14; the Vikings announced on the 15th though that they would allow Peterson to play in the next game with the Saints. The public reacted vehemently to the Vikings’ announcement, with even Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton expressing that Peterson should be suspended.

“Yes, Mr. Peterson is entitled to due process and should be ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ However, he is a public figure; and his actions, as described, are a public embarrassment to the Vikings organization and the State of Minnesota. Whipping a child to the extent of visible wounds, as has been alleged, should not be tolerated in our state,” explained Governor Dayton.

Since the public’s reaction, Peterson’s name made its way to the Exempt/Commissioner’s Permission list. As a result, he is not allowed to participate in any team activities while his charges progress.

This is one example of many in recent weeks where the court of public approval has called for suspension of a player in response to charges of domestic violence and abuse. Running back for the Baltimore Ravens, Ray Rice, was initially put on two-game suspension when a clip surfaced of him pulling an unconscious Janay Palmer, his then-fiancée, out of an elevator; the public wasn’t happy with the rather underwhelming reaction on the part of the Ravens and NFL, but the organizations later had an actual, honest-to-goodness reaction when the entire video surfaced of Rice beating Palmer. When the video, wherein Rice knocks Palmer unconscious, was released, the Ravens axed Rice from the team and the NFL suspended him.

Of course, it would have been nice if the NFL and respective teams had, y’know, reacted this way as soon as evidence came out of Rice and Peterson’s abuse. I suppose we have to take their belated reaction for progress of a sort.

Sometimes it isn’t appropriate for the court of public approval to weigh in. In instances where vigilantism goes viral and average Joes decide to take “justice” into their own hands, the court of public approval is unacceptable. I’m by no means saying the justice system anywhere is perfect—in some cases, it isn’t even good—but we have legal systems to maintain order and justice, for all parties.

When faced with compelling evidence of abuse though—bruises and wounds, or a video depicting the abuse itself—it’s entirely appropriate to call for suspension, at the very least; in fact, I’d say such a reaction is necessary. A capitalist-esque approach of “voting with dollars” at least suits these issues of morality: we don’t approve of Rice or Peterson’s actions, so calling for their suspension at minimum enforces that disapproval. Allowing Rice and Peterson to play despite their reprehensible actions and consequent charges would have been an implicit acceptance of their actions. It would say, “They’ve been charged with a horrible crime, but they’re really good at football.” “They may have beaten their loved ones, but it’s not our place to judge.”

That “but” is what too often passes the buck. It’s too easy to say “yeah, but,” to distance ourselves from someone else’s suffering and from our responsibility. The public is responsible in an indirect way: when we “side” with a perpetrator of violence—by continuing to pay them millions of dollars, for example—we accept their actions as inconsequential. We say that their actions don’t require reaction, and unfortunately, that apathy does sometimes translate into the justice system. Historically, the police response to cases of domestic violence was to say that it was “just a domestic,” and to leave the issue to be sorted out at home. I don’t think that is caused entirely by a faulty justice system though; it’s the result of a generally apathetic society in the face of domestic abuse.

Organizations like the NFL are in powerful positions. The NFL, and the teams that play in the league, are influential in that they don’t have to support players who do awful things. By extension, it tells the viewers that domestic abuse is intolerable. Of course I still want to see both Peterson and Rice actually make their way through the legal systems and, if found guilty, receive proportionate and appropriate sentences. Their suspensions mean bupkis if the actual legal system doesn’t also weigh in on the evidence of abuse.

Nonetheless, for the time being, I’m heartened by the fact that sportscaster James Brown turned to camera and gave a speech on domestic violence in response to Rice’s video: “Our language is important. For instance, when a guy says, ‘You throw the ball like a girl,’ or ‘You’re a little sissy,’ it reflects an attitude that devalues women, and attitudes will eventually manifest in some fashion.” This sends a message of social and collective responsibility, direct from the influencers in one of the most-watched sports around, to the viewers at home.