Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Adrian Peterson case and others prove NFL guided by public reaction, not moral compass

FILE - In this Sept. 7, 2014, file photo, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson warms up for an NFL football game against the St. Louis Rams in St. Louis.
FILE - In this Sept. 7, 2014, file photo, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson warms up for an NFL football game against the St. Louis Rams in St. Louis. AP

NFL star Ray Rice punches his then-fiancée in the face in a hotel elevator, her head bangs into a railing as she falls, and he drags out her unconscious body as the doors slide open.

You don’t think much of anything could be as appalling or infuriating as the images on that video.

Then you see what an even bigger NFL star, Adrian Peterson, did. You see the lines of bloody slash marks on the leg of a 4-year-old boy, administered by a whipping with a tree branch. Peterson called that routine discipline. Called it parenting. A Texas grand jury is calling it felony injury to a child.

America’s most popular sport is just under way with its new season, but hardly anybody is talking about football. Most everybody is talking about crime and punishment, and whether these latest image-bashing scandals — and the handling of them — should force league commissioner Roger Goodell to resign.

There is no fun in the games right now.

We are dealing with stuff that feels more important than who wins on Sunday.

Remember last season when the “Bullygate” matter embroiling the Miami Dolphins seemed like such a big deal? Now, after Rice, Peterson and the mushrooming aftereffect, the idea of a few players going too far in teasing a teammate seems almost quaint.

A 6-5, 315-pound bullying victim in a locker room is a victim nonetheless. But he is not a defenseless victim like a woman at the hands of a violent man. He is not a defenseless victim like a 4-year-old child.

What Peterson did is more complicated than the clear-cut, videotaped domestic abuse by Rice because it falls some under the broad umbrella of parental discipline. TV commentator Charles Barkley even excused the whipping as a part of Southern culture. Peterson himself, while admitting he got carried away, said he was only doing what his own father had done to him.

If that’s Southern culture, the culture must change. Times change. When I was growing up, school discipline included paddling with narrow, foot-long wooden boards. No more.

The problem in excusing what Peterson did as parental discipline is it’s a ready excuse for child abuse. If leaving bloody wounds via a tree branch is discipline, what’s next on the tough-love scale?

I’m not against all physical discipline such as mild spanking, nor am I the perfect parent to judge others. But in drawing the line that must always separate acceptable discipline from child abuse, I would echo what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once famously said about pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

I don’t have a definition of acceptable parenting that would satisfy all, but I know what is not acceptable is repeatedly whipping a 4-year-old with a branch until his legs bleed.

It’s strange. Another now-former NFL player, Aaron Hernandez, remains jailed without bail on three murder charges. That was major headlines just a year ago. But somehow we can neatly detach ourselves there. We can write that off as gang-related or having to do with the street.

We regard the Peterson and Rice cases more viscerally. They hit home because they involve the home. Hitting a spouse. Beating a child. These are things that make a good man’s blood boil, things that make women rise up against all who would condone them.

Very few of us can relate to capital murder, but too many of us have seen lives touched by domestic abuse or been haunted wondering silently about the kid in class who always seemed to have bruises.

The next-door nature of these crimes is why the outrage has been passionate, and why big-money sponsors have begun to get involved to pressure the NFL and its teams to clean up the image.

The NFL in turn is scrambling to figure out what to do — and not just react to the reaction.

Right now the NFL, its 32 teams and commissioner Goodell are at a loss. There has been a randomness, no set policy on how to deal with instances like Rice and Peterson, and there needs to be.

Goodell suspended Rice for a mere two games. There was outrage over the leniency. So Goodell formed a new policy of six games for a first domestic-abuse offense and a lifetime ban for a second. Then the damning video was released. And Rice was suspended from the Baltimore Ravens indefinitely.

That’s making up the rules as you go along, guided not by a clear moral compass but by public reaction and whether a TMZ video went viral.

The Minnesota Vikings have similarly flip-flopped on how to handle Peterson. He played in the opener, was suspended by the team from the second game, was reinstated, and then early Wednesday was placed on the NFL’s inactive “exempt” list, tantamount to an open-ended suspension while he resolves his legal matter.

“We made a mistake,” Vikings owner Zygi Wilf said Wednesday of the brief reinstatement.

A lot of that going around the NFL these days — players making the first mistake by getting in trouble, then teams and the league making their own by their guesswork responses.

A Carolina player, Greg Hardy, is appealing a July conviction for domestic assault, and his team has no idea what to do. He played the first game and was inactive for the second. But why hasn’t the NFL suspended Hardy as it did Rice? Because a courtroom conviction you read about doesn’t stir public outrage like a surveillance video you wince to watch?

A San Francisco player, Ray McDonald, to the objection of many, continues to play every week despite an Aug.31 arrest on domestic-violence charges. Why? Because the league and teams have no uniform policy on whether to let the judicial process play out or whether to preempt the legal system.

Meantime, Denver’s Wes Welker saw his four-game suspension for using amphetamines lifted Wednesday because of changes in the league’s drug policy, and the year-long suspension of Cleveland’s Josh Gordon for DUI and marijuana offenses is expected to be reduced to 10 games.

The NFL’s image problem isn’t just that too many of its players get in trouble. It is also that its response and punishment has been so haphazard and inconsistent.

The league has thus far been mostly impervious to the broadside image hits. TV ratings remain buoyant. Stadiums are full. Owners have it made. Gambling and fantasy leagues help drive ever-increasing interest.

We keep waiting for the cumulative effect of public anger, but it’s tough to see and quantify.

Increasing sponsor dissatisfaction has the league’s attention, though, because that (along with television) is the major revenue stream. This week alone, Nike dissociated itself with Peterson and pulled all of his merchandise from its stores in Minneapolis-St. Paul while major NFL sponsor Anheuser-Busch admonished the league for its growing image problem, an unheard-of public scolding/warning.

Major sponsors disengaging from the NFL would merit attention even more urgent than fan unrest would. After all, the only thing the commissioner and 32 club owners hold more sacred than their public image is their financial bottom line.