A majority of Minnesotans disapprove of the way Adrian Peterson disciplined his 4-year-old child, with nearly two-thirds saying he should be released from the Vikings or should not play until his legal case is resolved, according to a new Star Tribune Minnesota Poll.

The indictment of Peterson in Texas on child-abuse charges has touched off a larger debate about whether parents are justified in hitting their own children and about what constitutes child abuse. The poll paints a complicated portrait of Minnesotans’ attitudes toward corporal punishment, with many Minnesotans saying parents have the right to use physical force with their own children while criticizing Peterson’s actions as excessive.

A clear majority, 57 percent, of adult Minnesotans described Peterson’s actions while disciplining his child as “abusive.” While 59 percent of adult Minnesotans said their own parents used corporal punishment, only a third say parents have a right to use physical punishment to discipline their children. More than 40 percent of men polled said they continue to support the practice, while fewer than one in four women do.

In interviews, Minnesota poll respondents who said they occasionally use corporal punishment said they are nonetheless disturbed by the extent of the injuries to Peterson’s child.

Peterson admitted to twice hitting his son, once with a belt and once with a switch, or a small tree branch, causing the boy to suffer visible injuries to his legs, buttocks, back and scrotum.

Peterson has been charged with reckless or negligent injury to his child and will not play for the Vikings until his criminal case is resolved.

“I believe a parent’s got a right to spank a child, but there’s a world of difference between a spanking and a beating,” said Connie Cross, 53, a poll respondent from Hibbing. “What Peterson gave that poor little boy was a beating and I hope he never again plays in the NFL.”

The poll of 500 Minnesotans was taken Sept. 22-24 on both land line and cellphones. Its margin of sampling error is plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

MVP benched

The Vikings initially permitted running back Peterson to rejoin the team as the legal process played out.

But after corporate sponsors protested, the team reversed course and announced that Peterson had agreed to a voluntary suspension — with pay — while he faces criminal charges.

The league’s former most valuable player won’t return to the field until the legal proceedings are concluded, which may stretch into 2015.

The allegations against Peterson and the team’s initial handling of the case do not appear to have done significant harm to fan support in Minnesota for the Vikings organization or professional football.

A broader debate

More than two-thirds of Minnesotans said they had either a favorable opinion or no opinion of the National Football League and Vikings owner Zygi Wilf, despite heavy criticism from television sports pundits and politicians over the league’s handling of the situation.

Gov. Mark Dayton and U.S. Sen. Al Franken were among those who criticized the Vikings for not immediately benching Peterson after the allegations surfaced. About half of Minnesotans still describe themselves as “casual” Vikings fans, while 27 percent say they are “big” fans of the team.

But the Peterson case has implications that extend beyond the Vikings and the NFL.

The graphic photographs of long cuts on the upper thigh, back and buttocks of Peterson’s child — circulated widely on the Internet — have stirred a broader public discussion about the often blurry line between disciplining children and abusing them.

The discussion comes as Dayton orders new measures to prevent child abuse in the wake of a 4-year-old Minnesota boy’s death.

Divided over physical force

A recent Star Tribune report found major failings in Minnesota’s child-protection system, in which reports of child abuse often go uninvestigated or are not reported to police, enabling the abuse to continue.

“I really hope the publicity around the Peterson case sends a message to parents to think twice before they hit their kids,” said Jeff Vanleuven, 44, a poll respondent from West St. Paul who recalls being whipped with a belt as a child. “Hopefully, people will talk about this in the places where it needs to be talked about — like at the State Capitol.”

Minnesotans are sharply divided — by gender, income and age — over whether it is justified to use physical force in dealing with children.

Men in Minnesota are nearly twice as likely to support corporal punishment as women.

And younger Minnesotans are much more inclined to support physical discipline than their older counterparts, belying the notion that hitting and spanking children has fallen out of favor in recent decades.

Some 42 percent of respondents aged 18-34 support corporal punishment, compared with 26 percent of those aged 65 or older, according to the poll.

‘He took it way too far’

In interviews, many parents polled said they were not opposed to Peterson hitting his son as a form of discipline, but they considered his use of a stick on a young boy to be overly harsh.

“He took it way too far,” said Tonie Meiners, 62, a poll respondent from Finlayson.

Kathie Merritt, 51, a poll respondent from St. Cloud, said she has long supported corporal punishment.

“Spare the rod, spoil the child,” she said, proudly. The mother of two children, who are now adults, described how she would occasionally hit her oldest daughter with a spoon on the buttocks or would stick a sock inside her mouth to get her to stop screaming.

“You bet I smacked my kids, because it worked,” Merritt said. “But they didn’t get a spanking unless they did something extremely wrong, like stealing, lying or using God’s name in vain.”

At the same time, Merritt said she never hit her daughters hard enough to leave marks, so she was disturbed by reports that Peterson left visible cuts on his son’s legs and buttocks. Peterson “left marks, and that’s abuse in my mind,” she said. “He should be setting an example for young children if he wants to play in the National Football League and not foster a culture of violence.”

Peterson has denied that he is a child abuser, saying that he was disciplining his son in the way he was disciplined as a child.

In a statement, Peterson wrote, “Deep in my heart I have always believed I could have been one of those kids that was lost in the streets without the discipline instilled in me by my parents and other relatives.”

While Peterson continues to receive his $14 million-a-year salary, he is losing money away from the football field. Earlier this month, Nike suspended its endorsement contract with Peterson and Wheaties severed ties with the player, considered the most dominant running back of his era.

Waiting for a verdict

The Minnesota Poll found that fewer than one in four Minnesotans think Peterson should be allowed to play for the team until his legal case is settled, and just 17 percent of respondents have a favorable opinion of him. However, 40 percent of those polled said they were neutral or had no opinion of Peterson, a possible indication that they were waiting to form an opinion based on the criminal court proceedings.

“It’s horrible what [Peterson] did, but we shouldn’t make him a celebrity scapegoat,” said Elliott Saxton, 30, a poll respondent and Realtor from Minneapolis. “I’m not sure how ending this guy’s football career will help solve our wider problems of dealing with violence in our society.”

Vanleuven, the poll respondent from West St. Paul, said he sympathized with Peterson after learning that the Viking was also physically disciplined as a child growing up in Texas.

Vanleuven recalled how his own father whipped him twice with a belt for small transgressions, and how his mother would spray Tabasco sauce in his mouth when he used vulgar language.

“No kid should ever have to go through that,” Vanleuven said. “I wish people would talk less about Adrian Peterson and more about how to make physical punishment of children less of a norm.”


Twitter: @chrisserres