The 2014-15 NFL season has been plagued by a series of players engaging in unacceptable off-field conduct. It’s also been characterized by inconsistent punishment policies on behalf of the league, under the leadership of commissioner Roger Goodell. Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon’s inexplicable 10-game suspension for failing a drug test recently expired. Former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice’s career has likely ended after he was caught on tape beating and dragging his now-wife out of a Las Vegas elevator. A total of 36 NFL players have received some sort of suspension in 2014, each of varying length for a different infraction.
Out of all the year’s suspensions, none has been more controversial than Adrian Peterson’s. The Minnesota running back was charged in September with unlawful discipline of his 4-year-old child, whom he badly bruised and cut with the use of a switch. The publicization of this alleged child abuse came at exactly the wrong time for Peterson, when the public was outraged at the NFL’s inconsistent policies regarding off-field conduct, particularly regarding the case of Ray Rice. Peterson was benched by the Vikings, then played a game, then was benched again. He’s since been suspended without pay, a qualification he received after being placed on the commissioner’s exempt list. Now, he’s officially been suspended without pay for the remainder of this season. He must undergo various rehabilitation and counseling programs before likely being reinstated next year. For a player who will be 30 years old and in his ninth season next year, that's a steep and significant punishment.
Rusty Hardin, the attorney representing Peterson in his Texas case, believes his client is being unfairly treated by the NFL based on public reaction to the conduct of others in the league. “I’m just amazed the way they just keep making these things up as they go along,” Hardin said to ESPN regarding the NFL’s suspension of Peterson. “They looked bad in the earlier things. With Ray Rice, they handled things badly, publicly. And now, they’ve just decided to make Adrian the scapegoat for all of their past failings.” In many ways, Hadin is correct. Peterson plead no contest to the misdemeanor charges of reckless assault against him, effectively ending the case and avoiding felony charges. Since the case is essentially over, there’s little reason that he shouldn’t be cleared to play. Except that the NFL has something to prove, and Peterson's actions were just enough out of line that he's become the ideal candidate to take the blame.
Peterson’s case has become a public test for the NFL, and they have to prove that they’ve changed the way they deal with domestic violence issues. But their treatment of Peterson does little to correct the inconsistent and inexplicable path the league has been on thus far this season. As Hardin argued, the ruling is an attempt to cover up for past mistakes, to show that they’re on a better path. But as the case has been all season, Peterson’s punishment doesn't quite make sense. Peterson’s treatment of his son was disgusting and reprehensible, but that doesn’t give the NFL the right to use the case as a way to get back in the good graces of the public. Regardless, the decision has been made. Peterson will undergo counseling and rehabilitation and hopefully be back, smarter and stronger, next season. Whether or not Goodell and the rest of the NFL’s leadership should be back next season is a tougher question to answer.