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Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice and the NFL's Penalty Box

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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The National Football League swiftly addressed the question of whether we’d see Adrian Peterson back on the field soon, rejecting his reinstatement request almost immediately after he struck a plea deal to avoid jail time on child abuse charges.

On Tuesday, Peterson pleaded no contest to one count of misdemeanor reckless assault in exchange for probation, a $4,000 fine and 80 hours of community service. There will be no mention of family violence or violence against a minor on his record, allowing everyone to conveniently forget that the Minnesota Vikings running back was accused of beating his child with a switch.

NFL, America's Soapbox

News of the investigation broke while the public was outraged over the league’s handling of Ray Rice’s domestic violence case. Yesterday, Rusty Hardin, Peterson’s attorney (who has plenty of experience getting athletes off the hook), urged the public not to conflate Peterson's situation with Rice’s, and to consider each individually.

So let’s consider an adult who has admitted to hitting a 4-year-old with a stick with such repeated force that it caused visible injuries. Peterson didn’t need any help from Rice for us to take issue with his conduct.

That said, the NFL’s response to Peterson’s charges was influenced by the reaction to the league’s relative inaction with Rice. The NFL placed Peterson on the Exempt/Commissioner’s Permission List, taking him off the field and barring him from team activities while still paying him his salary.

The league now has another opportunity to set the tone for player discipline under its new, ostensibly tougher domestic violence policy. Peterson would be the first player to be subject to the new rules, which call for a six-game suspension for a first offense.

The NFL also has a chance to live up to its promise, as stated in its personal conduct policy, to hold its players to a higher standard than the criminal justice system -- unfortunately necessitated by the league’s past practice of hiding behind the law as much as the inherent failings of the law itself.

It’s important for a decision to be reached quickly, though the NFL has somewhat of a grace period with the Vikings on a bye this week. Stretching out this process adds to the impression of the league, and specifically Commissioner Roger Goodell, as inconsistent and opaque, doling out discipline a la carte in order to serve the league’s image rather than any sense of justice.

It also gives even more ammunition to the NFL Players’ Association, which will have Peterson’s back if the league appears to stray from its disciplinary code. According to NBC Sports’ Mike Florio, some within the union think the league is continuing to drag its feet to bide some time for the Vikings, who fear a public-relations backlash if Peterson returns too soon.

The NFLPA is representing Rice in his appeal of his indefinite suspension, citing the league’s inconsistency and Goodell’s judicial omnipotence in matters of player discipline. The case opened yesterday with Goodell testifying for more than two hours, while Rice and his wife are expected to be among those testifying today. The NFLPA has proposed resolving all personal conduct cases through neutral arbitration, which would decentralize Goodell’s power and make the discipline process far more objective.

Until then, the NFL had better make a decision on what to do with Adrian Peterson, and fast. Just as Peterson will continue to be judged for what’s missing from his legal record, the league will be judged for how it handles its first major case in the post-Ray Rice era.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net