The camera never lies, and the truth told by the one that captured the damage inflicted on Adrian Peterson's son demanded the football star not step on an NFL field again in 2014.
The photos of the abused 4-year-old were no less shocking than the elevator video that showed Ray Rice knocking out the woman who would be his wife, with the footage making a virtual crime out of the initial two-game ban Roger Goodell handed him. In his letter to Peterson announcing the running back was suspended from the Minnesota Vikings for at least the final six games of the regular season, the commissioner cited the "visible swelling, marks and cuts" on the child's ankles, limbs, back, buttocks and genitals left by Peterson's weapon of choice, a tree branch, or "switch," for the severity of the penalty.
The visuals are what nailed Peterson, just like they ultimately nailed Rice and left the commissioner fighting for the tattered remains of his legacy. Was Goodell inspired to play the tough guy after he came off looking so remarkably weak and out of touch in the Rice case?
No question, and it goes beyond the necessary modifications to what had been a toothless domestic violence policy. But regardless of Goodell's motivation, the decision to bench Peterson without pay until at least April was the only one to make.
Goodell knew the public couldn't get past the photos of the angry lacerations on the boy's legs and the impact of what the commissioner called "the emotional and psychological trauma to a young child who suffers criminal, physical abuse at the hands of his father." Goodell also knew the public couldn't get past the police report -- quoted by Sports Radio 610 in Houston -- that had Peterson's son saying his father put leaves in his mouth during the May beating and he feared his father would punch him in the face if he told the cops what had happened.
A league source said the injury to the boy's testicles was a specific factor in separating Peterson's actions from what a civil society would accept as reasonable corporal punishment. Goodell said the running back showed "no meaningful remorse" for his conduct, a fact almost as troubling as the abuse itself.
Peterson is 6-foot-1, 215 pounds of Greek god muscle, the kind of ball carrier who would have made every old-school linebacker from Dick Butkus to Jack Lambert to Mike Singletary cower in their cleats. If you're a right-minded parent, good luck trying to get the image of Peterson delivering what he called a "whooping" on his helpless child out of your head.
Indicted in September for "reckless or negligent injury to a child," a felony, Peterson ultimately pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor reckless assault charge that kept him out of jail and required him to pay a $4,000 fine and perform 80 hours of community service.
"I truly regret this incident," Peterson said after his plea in the Montgomery County Courthouse in Conroe, Texas. "I stand here and take full responsibility for my actions."
But Peterson has never taken full responsibility for what he did. In fact, he defended his behavior and intent in repeatedly striking his child for pushing another boy off a motorbike video game, and when given the chance to explain himself to league officials last week, he chose to hide behind some collectively bargained bunk.
"I'm sorry for all of this," Peterson said in a statement, "but I can't excuse [the league's] refusal to be fair."
Fair? Peterson shouldn't be the one talking about fairness, even if the players' union is appealing the decision, blasting Goodell and claiming a league executive told Peterson his time on the commissioner's exempt list would serve as the full extent of his NFL sentence, once his case was resolved.
Where was the fairness for his helpless son?
"While an adult may have a number of options when confronted with abuse -- to flee, to fight back or to seek help from law enforcement -- none of those options is realistically available to a 4-year-old child," Goodell told Peterson in his letter.
Peterson played only one game this year, but he did earn his full wage of $691,176 every week he spent on Goodell's bench. The running back can argue taking away nine games hurt him a lot more than taking away his money, and like Rice, he can argue he is being disciplined twice for the same offense.
But just like with the Rice videos in that Atlantic City, New Jersey, casino, the pictures of Peterson's son are worth more than a thousand argumentative words. They tell the story of a football star who didn't belong on the field until he could prove to his family and his employer that he is a changed man.
As the father of a 2-year-old allegedly beaten to death last year by a man the boy's mother was dating, Peterson spoke last summer of finally finding stability and alignment in his life. He sought spiritual counseling on his promiscuity and got married.
But then the child abuse story broke, and Peterson said some things he shouldn't have about the way he disciplined his son. Now Goodell fears Peterson's statements on striking children suggest he might act the same way in the future.
"The well-being of your children," the commissioner wrote, "is of paramount concern. ... 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."
Goodell laid out a program of counseling and therapy for Peterson to follow to earn reinstatement, and it's all on the running back now. In the wake of the Rice case and crisis that could still cost Goodell his job, Peterson might see himself as the wrong guy who committed the wrong crime in the wrong sport. He might actually see himself as a victim of bad timing.
But the photos of his son's legs say something far more powerful. The camera never lies, you know, and the camera in this case said Adrian Peterson shouldn't play football until 2015.