In an interview last week, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell spoke of the league's "responsibility to society" and suggested it has the ability to "make a difference" through its policies and responses to instances of misconduct.
"And every day," he concluded, "that's what we're going to strive to do."
Except for Monday, I presume.
After an exhaustive two-day investigation into serious charges against their best player -- charges that ballooned into two separate cases Monday night -- the Minnesota Vikings decided there was absolutely nothing they could do. They ignored Adrian Peterson's own admissions and announced they would allow due process to take its course before ruling on his status. Because the legal timetable will extend well into next year, it's quite possible the Vikings will never have to address the issue at all.
So let's call this what it is: A blatant and obvious play to wring one more year out of an aging superstar before bidding him farewell under the guise of salary cap management and the occasion of his 30th birthday.
Naturally, Vikings general manager Rick Spielman denied that suggestion Monday during a tense exchange with reporters.
"It has nothing to do with that," he said. "It has to do with the information that we have."
Let's look at that information and compare it to the recent history of the organization.
Peterson was charged Friday with reckless or negligent injury to a child after an incident in the spring involving his 4-year-old son in Texas. In separate statements, Peterson and his attorney have acknowledged he committed the acts that led to the injuries, which have been documented by photographs.
The statements disputed only the intent of the discipline, and Peterson said: "I am not a perfect parent, but I am not a child abuser. I am someone that disciplined his child and did not intend to cause him injury."
From a legal sense, Peterson absolutely has a right to due process. But in this case, it will not determine whether Peterson struck his son or caused injuries. The only question is whether he intended to injure. Let's put aside that legal debate for a moment and reiterate what we already know: Intentional or otherwise, Peterson injured his son. The resulting photographs, even Spielman admitted, were "disturbing."
Intent might be an important legal point, but as part of a league that claims it is striving every day to make a difference, the Vikings' reaction shouldn't be based solely on legal points. Can't we invite common sense, decency and just a drip of morality to the table as well? Isn't it possible to give Peterson due process while also insisting even incomplete information is enough to render some level of judgment?
We can reasonably discuss the severity of punishment required. A four-game suspension to undergo counseling is one idea I've heard. But you're not making a difference, as Goodell claims the league aspires to, by welcoming back a player who has admitted to injuring his son. Isn't that all the information necessary to render some level of judgment?
Certainly, it's more than the Vikings had when they acted decisively to keep cornerback Chris Cook away from the team in 2011 while he awaited trial for domestic abuse charges. It's more than what they knew about the assault case that led them to release a running back named Caleb King in 2012 and a domestic violence case that ended the career of cornerback A.J. Jefferson.
Spielman said those situations were "different," and he's right. None of them involved a future Hall of Fame player whose absence Sunday left the Vikings' offense lifeless in a 30-7 loss to the New England Patriots. Yes, we must plunge to the deepest levels of cynicism to understand why the Vikings are moving forward with Peterson as if nothing happened, why Spielman said they "feel strongly as an organization that this is disciplining a child" and thus not worthy of immediate action. (If the Vikings are consistent, you would assume revelations of an alleged second incident with another son won't impact their fervor for due process.)
The Vikings need Peterson on the field to compete this season, and they know it. They also know Peterson's contract gives them the opportunity to move on with minimal salary cap damage anytime after this season. He turns 30 -- far past the prime of most running backs -- in March, and barring a monster 2014 season, he seems an unlikely candidate for his scheduled salary of $13 million in 2015.
Montgomery County assistant district attorney Phil Grant has already said a trial is unlikely until next year, a timetable that conveniently excuses the Vikings from action should they -- oh, by coincidence, of course -- decide to release or trade him this offseason, as teams routinely do when superstar salaries outweigh performances.
Many will posit that football is about winning games, not constructing a morality play. Fine. But let's not allow the NFL to have it both ways. Let's not have its commissioner try to sell the brand as an agent of social change when, at an obvious and clear moment of reckoning, it reveals itself as nothing more than a mercenary of the status quo.