Connor: Difficult issues abound in furor engulfing NFL

Richard Connor

There’s a blurring of lines in all the debate these days regarding the National Football League, its public image and the domestic violence cases of, among others, Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens and Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings.

The issues are multiple, complex, and not necessarily related. Buried in all the controversy is a business issue: Should an employer reprimand, suspend or even terminate an employee accused of antisocial or illegal conduct outside the workplace?

Peterson pushed the long-simmering Rice controversy into the background when he was indicted on charges of child abuse, then both cases were upstaged Sept. 17 when Arizona Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer was arrested for allegedly assaulting his wife and his 18-month-old child. And don’t forget Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, who was convicted of domestic violence in July but is appealing the conviction.

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The Rice case began in February when the 5-foot-8-inch, 212-pound running back hit his then-fiancee (now wife) Janay Palmer with a knockout punch while the two argued in an elevator at an Atlantic City casino. Peterson was charged with aggravated assault but was granted “pretrial intervention,” which requires him to undergo anger management counseling and serve one year of probation. If he stays out of trouble for 12 months, the charges will be dropped and erased from his record.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Rice for two games, a punishment widely criticized as too lenient. Before that controversy had even run its course, the media’s leading scandal outlet TMZ released video from inside the elevator showing Rice decking Janay. The resulting furor caused Goodell to reverse his previous decision and suspend Rice indefinitely. Goodell claimed he had not seen the video before it was released publicly.

Meanwhile, Peterson was indicted by an East Texas grand jury on charges of abusing his 4-year-old son by beating him with a switch, causing cuts and bruises to his thighs, buttocks and scrotum. The boy’s offense: pushing another of Peterson’s children off a video game.

Peterson first was placed on leave by the Vikings, then reinstated, then suspended again after an outcry from the public and from sponsors when pictures of the boy’s injuries circulated through the media.

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All of these events have been combined into a single debate about domestic violence and child abuse in general and more specifically about the state of the National Football League, its commissioner’s powers and his competence as CEO of a high profile business that just happens to operate the most popular sports attraction in America.

In bars, coffee shops and around office water coolers all across the country, fans and nonfans of professional football are debating:

• the growing negative opinions about the NFL and the brutish, even criminal behavior of too many of its athletes off the field; • the dangerously violent nature of the league’s unique and profitable product – the competition on the field; • the scientific evidence that one of three NFL players will suffer serious brain disorders after retiring from pro football; • the inconsistent, arbitrary – and recently indecisive – rulings handed down by Goodell in administering his “personal conduct” policy;. • the challenging issues regarding spousal/partner abuse; • corporal punishment of children by parents.

As in virtually all areas of life these days, the intrusive and suffocating expansiveness of social media and the Internet add complexity to the debate. Goodell altered his punishment of Rice once the knockout video went viral. The public’s disgust with Peterson heightened when shown photos of welts and cuts on his son’s body.

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The debate about corporal punishment of children has even spilled over into questions of race – are spankings and beatings more common and acceptable among African Americans? – and geography: Is Southern culture more tolerant of physical punishment than the cultures of other regions?

I am not conflicted or confused by most of these issues. Domestic violence is horrifying and should be condemned on all levels. I am repulsed by violence of any kind against children. I was never spanked and I have never spanked my children.

As for football itself, the NFL has become too violent and dangerous. Sadly, I fear, the American public one day will watch a football player die during a game.

For all its efforts to protect its image and perpetuate the notion that its players are role models who should be above reproach, the NFL, like any business, should be cautious about making decisions regarding employees who are accused of or charged with a crime. The justice system is based on a presumption of innocence. Innocent or guilt aside, the system sometimes fails to determine the truth. Bad behavior outside of work may be relevant to an employee’s status in the workplace but employers should know all the facts before making decisions that affect a person’s livelihood.

These are difficult issues and we should be wary of indulging in the luxury of certainty. Which didn’t stop New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd from blasting Goodell for failing to banish domestic abusers from the NFL. Dowd recalled the decisiveness of a long-ago commissioner of baseball in dealing with miscreants in his game – members of the Chicago White Sox who were accused of conspiring with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series:

“The last sports commissioner who didn’t kowtow to owners may have been Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who banned Shoeless Joe and the Black Sox players from baseball for life even though they were acquitted in 1921 and went out with the jury to eat to celebrate. ‘Regardless of the verdict of juries,’ Landis said, ‘baseball is competent to protect itself against crooks, both inside and outside the game.’ If only.”

Richard Connor is CEO of the Business Press’ parent company, DRC Media. Contact him at