NFL now must tackle child abuse [Editorial]

Our view: Arrest of Minnesota's star running back raises broader questions about society's outdated views on corporal punishment

September 15, 2014

The National Football League received more domestic violence-related bad news last week with the arrest of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who was charged over the weekend in Texas with reckless or negligent injury to a child. The allegation is that he used a tree branch or "switch" to spank his 4-year-old son, who suffered cuts and bruises to his back, buttocks, ankles and legs.

Given that this was Texas, a state not normally given to condemning spanking of children as a disciplinary tool, one presumes that the injuries the preschooler suffered — because he allegedly failed to share his video game with a sibling — were pretty harsh. Under Texas law, a parent is allowed to use "reasonable" force to discipline a child.

Those who might have assumed that such behavior drew universal condemnation in the sports world, particularly given the still-fresh memory of last week's video showing Ray Rice knocking out Janay Rice in an Atlantic City elevator, would be mistaken. Viewers of NFL football on CBS Sunday heard commentator Charles Barkley defend "whipping" a child and disagreed that it ought to be punished, as "every black parent in the South is going to be in jail under those circumstances."

Much like last Thursday's game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens brought out die-hard Ray Rice defenders, so did last Sunday's game between the New England Patriots and Vikings inspire Peterson apologists. Incredibly, they included one female Adrian Peterson fan who not only wore his No. 28 jersey but brought along a 3-foot tree branch.

Mr. Peterson issued a statement Monday insisting that he is not a child abuser and did not intend to injure his son but that it was the way he was disciplined as a child, which he believes "has a great deal to do with the success I have enjoyed as a man." How many domestic abusers have offered the same explanation that what they were just doing was what they experienced themselves?

Here's what's really troubling. In the case of the Rice video, the sight of a professional athlete striking someone who was no match for him physically elicited nearly universal public condemnation — up to and including President Barack Obama, who called it "contemptible and unacceptable" and "not something a real man does." But the Peterson incident appears to be merely setting off another debate about what is a "reasonable" level of force with a child. The "spare the rod and spoil the child" mantra is demonstrably false, but it continues to pervade much of the culture in this country.

Politicians who are willing to condemn child sexual abuse seem far less interested in eliminating corporal punishment. The U.S. is one of only two countries in the world, along with Somalia, that has not ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (which was signed by the U.S. in 1995) in part because the treaty aimed at ending child trafficking includes language about "acting in the best interest of a child." That, in turn, has been interpreted by some in the U.S. Senate as anti-parental rights or anti-spanking.

That's absurd, of course, but it speaks to the fear of some that parents might be banned from spanking their children rather than simply prevented from causing serious injury. Nobody is suggesting an end to spanking — although that wouldn't be an unreasonable idea given that research shows such physical punishment is more likely to cause harm to a child than good. A study published last year in the journal "Pediatrics" found young children who are spanked behave more aggressively toward others and frequent spanking can have a negative effect on cognitive abilities. Others have concluded that children who are spanked are more likely to become adults who are depressed, angry and strike their own kids.

The NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell have certainly demonstrated they are ill-equipped to deal with domestic violence in general, and we have no doubt this extends more specifically to child abuse. Mr. Peterson was suspended by his team for one game, and Vikings officials announced Monday he will practice this week and play this coming Sunday against the New Orleans Saints. So much for a sea change in attitudes toward domestic violence. Meanwhile, Ray Rice's suspension from the league may not hold up if a union appeal succeeds.

In the meantime, here's a simple tip for parents: Don't strike your child. This applies whether you are black or white or from the North or South. There are any number of non-violent and more effective ways to maintain discipline. As the American Academy of Pediatrics advises, spanking "teaches a child that causing others pain is OK if you're frustrated or want to maintain control — even with those you love." Just ask Adrian Peterson.


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