MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota Vikings star running back Adrian Peterson’s booking on a child abuse charge Saturday has created another crisis for the embattled NFL, already derided for not responding strongly enough to acts of domestic violence by its players.
It also has touched off a national debate about the role of corporal punishment in parenting.
In the eyes of a Texas grand jury, Peterson crossed the line when he repeatedly struck his son with a tree branch, or switch, in May. Peterson’s attorney has said he has never run from what happened — and that Peterson was inflicting the same discipline he endured as a child.
“Obviously, parents are entitled to discipline their children as they see fit, except when that discipline exceeds what the community would say is reasonable,” Montgomery County Prosecutor Phil Grant said about 12 hours after Peterson was booked and released from jail on $15,000 bond. He is charged with causing injury to a child age 14 or younger.
Peterson, one of the NFL’s most popular players and widely considered one of the best running backs to ever play, flew from Minnesota to Houston in the early morning hours after authorities indicted him on Friday evening. He has a home in both locations.
The Vikings almost immediately decided to deactivate him for Sunday’s game against the New England Patriots, and NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said on Saturday that Peterson’s case “will be reviewed under the NFL’s personal conduct policy.”
The situation comes as the NFL proceeds with a self-commissioned investigation by a former FBI director into how it handled the case of Ray Rice, who knocked his then-fiancee unconscious in an Atlantic City elevator. Rice was released Monday from the Baltimore Ravens after a video surfaced that showed the violence. The NFL said it hadn’t seen the video before then, but a law enforcement source told the AP it was sent to a league executive’s office in April and provided a voice mail confirming it was received.
Unlike Rice’s situation, Peterson’s case is complicated by his stance that he meant his son no harm but rather was applying the same discipline he experienced growing up.
“Adrian is a loving father who used his judgment as a parent to discipline his son. He used the same kind of discipline with his child that he experienced as a child growing up in East Texas,” Peterson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, said.
Steve Eudey, who coached Peterson as a young boy in Palestine, Texas, and has remained a family friend, said he has heard stories from Peterson about his father Nelson “being a firm disciplinarian.”
“Some of the things his dad did to him was to make him tough,” Eudey told The Associated Press.
Eudey said he had yet to speak to Peterson since his arrest, but said his actions were consistent with the type of upbringing he had.
“I will go to my grave defending Adrian, but at the same time you can’t harm a child, either,” Eudey said. “I know that was never his intent.”
Grant, the Texas prosecutor, said the grand jury felt the charge was warranted after spending several weeks reviewing “lots of evidence.”
It’s not unusual for people subjected to physical discipline as children to use corporal punishment against their own children, experts say, and courts will sometimes consider that as a mitigating factor when sentencing an abuser. Peterson faces up to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine if found guilty.
News of Peterson’s charges led several prominent athletes to tweet about their experiences with corporal punishment when they were children.
“Am I the only one that got hit with a switch? I had to go outside and pick my own switch. It taught values, respect (and) accountability,” former NBA star Tracy McGrady said. But he later qualified those remarks, tweeting, “Disciplining a child is vital. Of course any early physical punishment should be within reason, not overboard, and inside certain boundaries.”
While the legal process plays out, the NFL is facing a potential test case for the tougher penalties it declared last month for players involved with domestic violence.
Commissioner Roger Goodell announced an initial offense will draw a six-week suspension without pay, though “more severe discipline will be imposed if there are aggravating circumstances such as the presence or use of a weapon, choking, repeated striking, or when the act is committed against a pregnant woman or in the presence of a child.”
It is not clear if Peterson’s case will invoke those penalties.
Corporal punishment is legal in Texas, and the law spells out that non-deadly force against a child by a parent or guardian is permissible.
But the punishment is abusive if it causes injury. While a blow that causes a red mark that fades in an hour is not likely to be judged abusive, a blow that leaves a bruise, welt, or swelling, or requires medical attention, could be judged abusive. The child’s injuries will likely be under scrutiny as the case proceeds.
The guidelines also say while spanking with the bare, open hand is least likely to be abusive, use of an instrument “is cause for concern.”
The Vikings jumped ahead of the NFL and the legal system by shelving Peterson for the game Sunday. Two other teams — Carolina and San Francisco — have taken heat for allowing players involved in alleged recent domestic violence incidents to continue to play.
The team — and the league — will likely face scrutiny as they decide whether Peterson returns to the field as the legal process plays out. As of Saturday, no decision had been made about his outlook this season, and no court date had been set in Texas.