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Adrian Peterson Gets a Dose of NFL 'Justice'

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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The National Football League made a major statement today, suspending Adrian Peterson for at least the remainder of the season after the Minnesota Vikings running back reached a plea deal in his child abuse case.

In a letter to Peterson, Commissioner Roger Goodell listed three main reasons for the season-long penalty, which exceeds the baseline six-game punishment outlined in the personal conduct policy that Goodell updated in August. The “aggravating circumstances” in this case were: That the victim, Peterson’s son, was just four years old; that Peterson's “repetitive use of the switch” constituted use of a weapon; and, notably, that Peterson has “shown no meaningful remorse” for his conduct.

That last point is particularly important, as Goodell also outlined the path for Peterson to apply for reinstatement, which he can do on April 15 of next year. Peterson will be required to undergo counseling and submit to a treatment program, in which his “genuine and continuing engagement” will ultimately decide the length of his suspension.

Finally, Goodell addressed the plea agreement Peterson reached earlier this month, pleading no contest to one count of misdemeanor reckless assault in exchange for probation, a small fine and community service. Despite what Peterson’s clean criminal record will say, the NFL has concluded that based on news reports, photos of the child's injuries and testimony from medical experts that the beatings did amount to child abuse.

In short, the NFL is finally living up to its promise to hold its players accountable, even when the criminal justice system does not.

“While criminal activity is clearly outside the scope of permissible conduct, and persons who engage in criminal activity will be subject to discipline, the standard of conduct for persons employed in the NFL is considerably higher,” the league’s personal conduct policy states. “It is not enough simply to avoid being found guilty of a crime.”

For years, those words seemed meaningless, as the NFL regularly issued meager punishments in line with the penalties levied by the law. But after the Ray Rice debacle, the league vowed to use its own judgment to enforce standards that we should all be able to expect. What the law says about Peterson and Rice is one thing; what common sense says after seeing those photos of a child’s beaten body and that video of an unconscious woman in an elevator is another.

The Adrian Peterson situation is far from over. The NFL Players Association will appeal the suspension on Peterson’s behalf, dismissing the league’s disciplinary process as “arbitrary” and citing the “credibility gap between the agreements they make and the actions they take.”

Those who do agree with the league’s decision should still take issue with the way it came about. One of the major problems with the way the NFL has conducted its disciplinary process is that there has been little to no transparency, a result of the concentration of power solely in Goodell’s hands. While the league has taken steps toward reform, it seems the commissioner’s role as “judge, jury, and executioner” hasn’t changed at all. Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky notes that while Peterson’s appeal will go through an independent arbitrator, Goodell will still oversee the proceedings, as outlined in the collective bargaining agreement.

As such, it’s hard to argue with NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith’s contention that when it comes to player discipline, the NFL is “making it up as they go along.” Even when it gets a decision right the league leaves itself open to accusations of inconsistency by keeping all its power at the top. It’s a good sign that the NFL is finally taking its role in sanctioning player behavior seriously, but its dubious disciplinary methods simply invite the kind of messy battles between union and league that we’re sure to see with Adrian Peterson.

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:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net