I’ve always been an optimistic, glass-half-full D.C. sports fan. So when the Redskins signed future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson late last month, I thought it was a minimal risk with plenty of upside. Sure, signing the 33-year-old former MVP might appear like a typically desperate, outlandish Redskins move. But this team needed help at running back, and even at his age, “All Day” likely still has enough left in the tank to help. I was excited about the possibilities.
Then I remembered Peterson’s history.
You wouldn’t know it from the fawning media coverage that followed Peterson’s arrival in Washington, but just a few seasons ago the former Minnesota Vikings star was indicted on felony child abuse charges and ultimately pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor reckless assault charge to resolve the matter. I’ve thought a lot about that these past few weeks, and though I bleed burgundy and gold, I wonder what it will feel like rooting for a player who did horrific things to a little kid.
According to his disturbing 2014 indictment, Peterson used a tree branch to whip his son so severely that it resulted in numerous injuries across the child’s body. Reasonable people can disagree on methods of disciplining children, but this was no mere spanking. In addition to defensive wounds on his hands, the 4-year-old had blood-encrusted whipping marks on his ankles, arms, thighs, buttocks and even scrotum. Peterson stuffed leaves in the child’s mouth to stifle his screams.
The boy told authorities he feared that his father would punch him in his face again if he reported the incident, according to police reports. Another of Peterson’s children, also 4 years old at the time, once bore a visible scar above his right eye, allegedly from a beating Peterson delivered while the child was confined to a car seat. That boy’s mother filed a report with Child Protective Services, though authorities took no action and Peterson denied wrongdoing.
As if all these incidents weren’t alarming enough, they came on the heels of one of Peterson’s other children being brutally beaten to death by the boyfriend of the child’s mother. Peterson apparently learned nothing from his child’s death at the hands of an abusive man. When subsequently busted for punching his 4-year-old in the face, splitting his child’s testicles with a tree branch and stuffing the boy’s mouth full of leaves, Peterson blamed the controversy on a “cultural misunderstanding,” according to Sports Illustrated, which wrote that “Peterson scoffs at the notion of redemption, because he doesn’t think there’s anything for him to redeem.”
And now we’re supposed to just forget about all this because he served a six-game suspension and a few years have passed? It’s incredible how little mention Peterson’s past has gotten from fans and media alike over the past few weeks. The irony is the player the Redskins signed Peterson to help replace, injured rookie Derrius Guice, had his character discussed ad nauseam throughout the offseason, prompted by national media reports. There has been no such discussion of Peterson’s character. Apparently tardiness to predraft meetings is a rookie character flaw worth endless examination, but a former superstar injuring his child is ancient history.
So it won’t be easy for this lifelong Redskins fan to root for No. 26 this season. Believe me, I want to win as badly as the next fan and think this team has a chance to do something special this year. But do we really want to be indifferent to child welfare so long as the abusive father can help us beat the Cowboys and Eagles? I’m very conflicted.
Winning this season will make it tempting not to care, and that’s what I’m afraid of. Undoubtedly many Skins fans won’t remember these incidents if Peterson stays healthy and gives us the kind of explosive, powerful back we’ve been missing since the early Alfred Morris days. But make no mistake: If Peterson were caught doing to women, or even dogs, what he did to a child, we’d be hearing plenty about his character. Just ask Michael Vick. Those questions wouldn’t go away just because he served a suspension and switched teams. Somehow, though, reckless assault of a child appears to be the one crime that’s forgiven and forgotten in the NFL.
This won’t be the first time I’ve had serious issues with an athlete on one of my favorite team, even if Peterson’s blemishes are of a different magnitude than, say, Jonathan Papelbon’s. And clearly, you don’t have to love or even like every person who plays on your favorite team. If that were the case, I’d have found another squad the instant Deion Sanders arrived.
In the end, a fan’s devotion can be so strong that we find ourselves ignoring — or even defending — things that we otherwise never would. It would be nice if we didn’t have to root for someone with Peterson’s past on Sundays, but what happens when that person puts on the jersey we love? I still think Adrian Peterson can help my team win games. But at what cost?
Rudy Gersten is a Washington native.