The NFL is the New Sheriff in Town

There are two common responses to the Adrian Peterson suspension. One goes like this: “What?! Others players have done far worse and have gotten far less.”

The other side says, “Good. He got what he deserved.”

But both sides take the phenomenal leap of assuming that the NFL should be in charge of distributing justice–even taking priority over the justice system.

This idea is simply taken for granted. It’s not if the NFL should punish its employees, but how.

At first, this got me thinking of my father, a mechanic with a small business employing one or two guys at a time. A few years back, one of his employees got a DUI for the second time. What did my father do?


That’s why we have a justice system. But if his employee wasn’t able to come to work due to not having a license or being in jail, then my father would have to fire the guy. That’s how that worked.

I posted this argument on Facebook and some responded that the NFL is public, so the situation is different. But I don’t see movie studios not hiring actors because of their recent transgressions.

Nevertheless, when another NFL running back, Ray Rice, was caught on camera earlier this year hitting his fiance, there was public outrage because he let off without much punishment. But it wasn’t the justice system people were mad at–it was the NFL. Petitions were started to oust the current NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell. No petition for the prosecutor or judge who were the ones actually responsible for doling out justice.

The assumption on the NFL to act has become so ingrained that one popular media went so far as to say that the NFL “has condoned domestic violence for years” because it hasn’t always punished its players for their crimes. By that logic, my father condones driving drunk.

When did the NFL become the barometer of justice in America?

I think it got this way, because of the NFL’s size and influence. That’s perhaps a drawback to the power the NFL aims for. Becoming an entity with such gravity, the satellite of justice now revolves around it.

And being a high paid athlete for this entity isn’t seen as a job. (This is where my perspective differs. Why shouldn’t a man be allowed to work while a case is pending, or in the case of Peterson, after his case is settled?) However, for most of America, it seems, playing in the NFL is seen mainly as a privilege. And people who screw up shouldn’t be afforded such privileges.

Whatever the reasons, the NFL is looked at as a gauge for justice.

This is why Peterson was punished the way he was. The NFL has a brand to protect, and because popular (or at least the most vocal) belief equates the NFL’s response with the measure of justice, the NFL has to do what’s now considered right and take action.

So the question to ask is: where does this mean for American justice?

That the NFL is now required to punish their players in addition to what the justice system sentences indicates, I believe, a phenomenon of the public looking to entities outside the government for justice. Again, most people didn’t even care that the prosecutor and judge let Ray Rice off the hook. Along with the NFL’s growth and influence making them a bigger target for taking punitive action against their players, the increased connectivity of the internet fans the flames of people’s demands. And now, it’s simply more effective to demand justice from the NFL rather than from the government. Just look at how quickly the NFL adjusted its policy. One year they don’t punish a player for domestic abuse; the next year they do.

This has appeal. It’s nice to know one’s voice is heard.

But it’s also concerning. On September 18, the Arizona Cardinals football team, out of fear of the issue and the public outcry, released a player just hours after his arrest for domestic assault. To the degree that the NFL is malleable and able to change is going to be the same level of susceptibility to mob demands. And the NFL is the only game in town, so what can a player do? Playing for the NFL is a job. And now that player, who hasn’t even had his day in court, is (as far as I know) unemployed.

It’s also concerning because of the language used two days ago in the NFL commissioner’s letter to Adrian Peterson to explain Peterson’s suspension. The parental and scolding aspect of the courts that is sometimes criticized is now part of the job description of the NFL commissioner apparently. Referring to Peterson’s abuse to his son, Goodell stated to Peterson:

“…the injury was inflicted on a child who was only 4 years old. The difference in size and strength between you and the child is significant…”

Adrian Peterson

“While an adult may have a number of options when confronted with abuse — to flee, to fight back or to seek help from law enforcement — none of those options is realistically available to a 4-year old child.”

“…you have shown no meaningful remorse for your conduct.”

Roger Goodell

“The well-being of your children is of paramount concern.”

“In order to assess your progress going forward, I will establish periodic reviews, the first of which will be on or about April 15, 2015. At that time, I will meet with you and your representatives and the NFL Players Association to review the extent to which you have complied with your program of counseling and therapy and both made and lived up to an affirmative commitment to change such that this conduct will not occur again.”

Maybe these are words of a man guilted into saying all of this by public outcry. Maybe these are the first awkward steps in this infant phenomenon of the NFL being the new sheriff in town.

Last night on my way home from work, I was listening to sports talk radio and national personality Dan Patrick said he doesn’t like that the NFL is “going down this road” of micromanaging the players’ personal lives. But I think the trend will perpetuate.

NFL to MLB to NBA to NASCAR to WNBA to PGA to SAG to 3M…

The justice system of any society is designed to punish offenders and curb the offenses committed. With a more connected society than ever before, people–at least in these NFL cases–are bypassing their politicians and setting their sights on other means of seeking justice. Perhaps this is a social evolution of justice. Employment and social acceptance will hang over wrongdoers’ heads. Not jails or community service. But that would require the justice system to step aside or at least take a back seat. As it is now, people like Adrian Peterson are having to endure two modes of justice for their mistakes.