Peterson's case awash in complexity

I was born in 1968. My mother died in 2007. There is not a day that goes by that I do not miss her. Usually, the pain of her loss is strongest regarding parenting, when my son says or does something I once did, and I summon the times she would say, "I can't wait for you to have kids." Now, I do, and now I cannot talk to her.

When we were kids, until my parents determined we were too old for it, we received routine corporal punishment, always with the same black belt. I got the belt in fourth grade when school called and told my mother I wasn't eating their dreadful hot lunch. I got it once when my sister, talking on the phone, tossed burned matches into the plastic kitchen garbage can, melting the interior. Incorrectly assuming it was boy mischief, she stormed into my room -- no questions asked -- brandished the belt, and beat me mercilessly.

In between screams, I ratted out my sister. In mid-fury, my mother left my room, barged into my sister's, and finished on her what she had started with me. Instead of apologizing, she would say at family gatherings, "I just got you for something you thought you got away with."

By the time we grew up, the belt we were hit with, frayed and discolored, no longer contained a buckle. We siblings laugh about it today, but it is a true story, and it wasn't funny then.

This year, from domestic violence to parenting, the NFL has entered the American home in ways it never intended, and without much heroism. Commissioner Roger Goodell's suspension of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson for the rest of the season, after Peterson had already missed all but one game, exacerbated that intrusion. The NFL now finds itself at the forefront of a cloudy, difficult issue that has not yet been resolved socially, and for that reason, it's nearly impossible for the commissioner's office to form consistent policy.

The layers, delicate and emotional, all require individual attention and critical thinking. There is the power dynamic between Goodell and the NFLPA, the enormous pressure on the NFL to appear sensitive to each new issue that threatens its interests, but most importantly the NFL's attempts to confront an issue that as yet has no real consensus in society at large, forcing Goodell to govern, as union head DeMaurice Smith said, "by making things up as he goes along."

To my mind, Peterson was guilty of child abuse. What he did was not only inappropriate and excessive, but sadistic. I told my older sister I doubted we were hit that young. She gave a bitter laugh and said, "Don't be so sure." I am certain, however, that my mother never stuffed leaves in my mouth, and she wouldn't have bragged about beating a child a year removed from being a toddler, especially if one of those lashes struck the child in the testicles.

In his letter informing Peterson of the suspension, Goodell wrote, "Second, the repetitive use of a switch in this instance is the functional equivalent of a weapon, particularly in the hands of someone with the strength of an accomplished professional athlete."

With one sentence, Goodell entered the murky space of the private parent-child relationship and its accompanying generational, racial, class and regional differences. Goodell criticized Peterson's lack of remorse, but Peterson's cultural backdrop made it at least partially so. I grew up in both all-black and all-white neighborhoods in Massachusetts, and in each, kids would trade stories of parents' weapons of choice. In the all-black section of Dorchester in the 1970s, it was the belt and the extension cord. In all-white Plymouth in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was the belt, the wooden spoon and sometimes the flyswatter. By today's standards, we were raised by a nation of child abusers. Today, I don't know many parents who admit to hitting their kids.

Yet by codifying the switch in his letter, Goodell seemingly put himself in conflict with the law. Corporal punishment at home is legal in all 50 states, and 19 of them allow it in schools. In Minnesota, a state that doesn't allow corporal punishment in schools and where people were generally horrified by his actions, Peterson is a pariah. In Texas, where his crime was adjudicated as a misdemeanor, a switch in the hands of a parent -- even a professional athlete -- is not a weapon. Under Goodell, for a misdemeanor, Peterson has lost an entire season.

The league will escape on Peterson because Peterson's misdemeanor was no ordinary misdemeanor. It was a heinous, indefensible whipping of a near-toddler. But there will be future consequences for the league, cases which are less clear about possible conflict with the legal system, when the league says it will use the legal system as a guide.

His discipline is a reminder of the closed nature of professional sports, where losing a job may very well be losing a career. Peterson is too skilled for the NFL to be done with him, but a lesser player with lesser talent would be less likely to see his career survive a pitchfork mentality. At times, the league and its fans choose to rely, when it suits them, on the power of the legal system. In Peterson's case, the adjudication was not enough for Goodell. Peterson has played but one game this season, and it is a legitimate question to ask if what he did was enough for him to damage -- and potentially lose -- his career. A doctor might be fired from a hospital, but there are other hospitals. There isn't another NFL.

The NFL is not a moral compass, and expecting it to be so is to expect disappointment. But by attempting to suppress negative opinions of itself -- brought on primarily through its mishandling of both the concussion issue and cases of domestic abuse -- the league is now flailing, chasing the approach it believes will satisfy public opinion, a futile attempt to prove that the nation's most violent sport cares. Americans want to be assured that winning games doesn't trump social responsibility in the NFL's eyes. Sponsors take their lead from the public, but there is no prevailing standard regarding corporal punishment, and the result is distance between the private parent, who can spank his or her child, and the public player, who faces a great risk in doing so -- even if he is within his legal rights.

Even the racial dynamics create difficult space, for the suggestion of "leaving a mark" is at best a poor standard for identifying abuse, a potentially racist one at worst, because some black children are darker than others, and it is more difficult to mark the skin. I was beaten my entire childhood and don't recall a single welt lasting more than a moment.

Still, I didn't believe the methods of my mother's generation were necessary then, and I do not hit my son now. Adults often do not understand just how imposing they are to children, how enormous a grown-up appears to a child, never mind the 6-foot-1, 217-pound chiseled Peterson. The shadow of an adult is intimidating enough. I'm twice the size of my son now, and must have looked like a giant to him when he was 4. There are other ways to reach my kid, and it is my responsibility to find them.

In the meantime, however, there is the never-ending dynamic of Goodell and his relationship with the players and their union, of how these situations emerge and who is disciplined and to what degree. Labor tension is the backdrop of his reaches and overreaches, and the field will only get murkier as the league gets pulled into more complex legal and social issues. Goodell was embarrassed by his colossal mishandling of the Ray Rice case, which resulted in the worst publicity his office has seen in decades.

Goodell's reaction in the Peterson case was to come down harder, which was intended as a direct reminder to Peterson and Smith that it is the commissioner who still holds the power in the league. As Goodell's overreaches pull his league further in front of difficult issues the rest of the country hasn't yet resolved -- with results that turn the public opinion against him -- that power is certain to dissolve.