The Adrian Peterson case has shifted from the playing field to far larger issues.
In suspending the Minnesota Vikings star running back for at least the remainder of this season, the National Football League on Tuesday seemed to be using the case to set strict new guidelines for players, and at the same time try to rebuild its tarnished image.
The NFL has been under fire from sponsors and fans for the perception that it has treated player transgressions lightly, and Commissioner Roger Goodell has vowed to form policies that will strongly address those complaints. His penalties on Peterson, who two seasons ago was the league's most valuable player, are likely evidence of the league's change in policy.
Some attorneys said that arguing whether Peterson's punishment for beating his child was more severe than what other NFL players had received for more serious crimes was no longer the point.
"It's a brave new world," said Marshall Tanick, a Minneapolis employment lawyer who has represented professional and amateur athletes. "The timing couldn't have been worse" for Peterson, he added. Had Peterson been indicted two years ago — instead of two months ago — for severely whipping his young child, "he'd be lining up against the [Green Bay] Packers" on Sunday, said Tanick.
In a sign of the stakes now surrounding Peterson's case, the NFL's suspension Tuesday morning was followed just 20 minutes later by a statement from the NFL Players Association criticizing the decision and announcing it would be appealed. By midafternoon, NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith said "litigation is inevitable."
Still getting paid
Peterson started the day being suspended without pay, and ended it still getting a paycheck, but only after losing a grievance with the league to be taken off the Commissioner's Exempt List. Remaining on the list enables him to collect his pay while the appeal is heard.
Deadspin, the national sports website, Tuesday carried the headline, "How the NFL Exploited a Child Abuser to Restore Its Brand" on its Peterson story.
Rusty Hardin, Peterson's Texas attorney, agreed that Peterson is now playing a role in a larger drama. "Without question," he said in an e-mail Tuesday. "It is shameless."
Two weeks have passed since Peterson entered a no-contest plea in Texas to whipping his child, a move that was expected to hasten his return to the playing field. But with the Vikings' season slipping away — the team has played 10 of its 16 scheduled games — Peterson is, if anything, further away from playing football.
In the NFL's statement announcing his suspension, the league said it was now sparring with Peterson's attorneys over which medical professional to use to design a program for counseling, therapy and community service. The NFL recommended Peterson see a psychiatry professor at New York University, while Peterson made a professor of psychology at Howard University available to talk about his case.
"In the absence of speaking to you to understand your current disposition toward child discipline," Goodell wrote, "we cannot be sure that this conduct will not be repeated. Moreover, we are unaware of any effort on your part to acknowledge the seriousness of your conduct and your responsibility to demonstrate a genuine commitment to change."
More image problems
Goodell's suspension of Peterson for the remainder of the season comes as the NFL faces even more serious threats to its image. The league is still defending its response in the case of Ray Rice, the former Baltimore Ravens running back who knocked his then-fiancée unconscious in an elevator earlier this year and initially only received a two-game suspension. Rice since has been cut by the Ravens and suspended indefinitely. And, in a case with wide-ranging implications for the league's future, a tentative settlement of the many concussion lawsuits from former players is scheduled for a court hearing Wednesday.
But as the NFL's issues play out, some caution against viewing Peterson as a victim. "[Peterson] is not a pawn in the larger issue of NFL image," said Charles Zimmerman, a Minneapolis attorney who has represented former NFL players and is a lead lawyer in the NFL concussion case. "This issue of conduct exists, and will continue to exist, unless and until the NFL makes clear that rules of conduct will consistently be enforced.
"It seems to me the sport is beginning to move in that direction today," he said of the Peterson suspension.
The NFLPA disagreed. Perhaps drawing the lines for a coming legal battle with Peterson caught in the middle, the union said Tuesday the league's decision "is another example of the credibility gap that exists between the agreements they make and the actions they take." The NFLPA added that an unnamed NFL executive had earlier told Peterson that his time on the commissioner's exempt list — the running back was placed on it with pay shortly after his indictment in September — "would be considered as time served."
Bob Stein, a former Vikings player who is now a lawyer and represents former players, said the NFL's decision showed that the league "appears to consider [that Peterson's] actions violated NFL conduct standards in a serious way." Stein was less sure how much of a precedent the Peterson case would set, or whether it simply reflected where the NFL finds itself as player conduct generates almost daily headlines.
"Decisions related to player violations of NFL conduct standards often seem to include how the actions reflect publicly on the player, league and game," he said. "It is much of the historic reason for the standards."
Staff writer Rochelle Olson contributed to this story.