Adrian Peterson's reported text messages reveal warped view of manhood that goes beyond NFL

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One of the saddest and most revealing details about the Adrian Peterson child abuse allegations/indictment is this reported text exchange with the mother of one of the children who was whipped.

"… toughest of the bunch," Peterson wrote. "He got about five more pops than normal. He didn't drop one tear! So that was another indicator I'll have to try another system with him. SMH he's tough as nails …"

Adrian Peterson (Getty)
Adrian Peterson (Getty)

The mother replied: "Well you can't hit him til he cries! That's just mean. He's trying to be strong for you. He's afraid of you. He's 4, he's not playing mind games with you …"

Peterson was trying to make his child into a man before the boy can even form and express complete thoughts. He's even excited about the challenge, as if facing down a would-be tackler. The child is trying to prove his own mettle, probably because he wants his dad to be proud of him. It's the same thing Peterson did with his own father, as a child and into his college years, when he dazzled the football world with his toughness as his dad sat in jail.

Peterson's greatest on-field accomplishment was in 2012, when he returned from two knee ligament tears to win MVP honors. It's understandable how Peterson saw the connection between enduring his dad's punishment and withstanding football's agony. He said he would never stop "whupping" his kids, "because I know how being spanked has helped me in my life."

The current NFL crisis, just like most of the league's past crises, lies not in who did what or who knew what when, but in a warped and conflicted definition of manhood. It's an issue that affects all of society – not just the NFL.

"We need to look at what it means to be a man," said Tony Porter, co-founder of "A Call to Men."

"What are we teaching our sons?"

More often than not, we are teaching our sons to exert control – over tears and emotions, then girls, then households and careers. Peterson's son was trying to keep control, and Peterson himself was trying to keep control over his son. That kind of control, no matter how good the intentions, can spiral into abuse of power. That's what happened in Peterson's case, and that can certainly happen in domestic violence situations.

"When you see people hit each other as a kid, or when you get hit as a kid, it's about power and control," said former NFL player Jimmy Stewart, who says he was abused as a child. "You want power and control over people."

Adrian Peterson is on paid leave until his legal case reaches a resolution. (AP)
Adrian Peterson is on paid leave until his legal case reaches a resolution. (AP)

That desire for control is hard to unlearn. Stewart, who is now a licensed professional counselor who works with athletes at Colorado State, says it took him many years to handle the rage he felt from getting hit.

A man who feels a loss of control often feels like his worth is being challenged. Statistics show domestic violence can turn into homicide when an abuser feels his wife or girlfriend has decided to leave. "That's when they have pretty much lost control," Porter said.

The punishment of Ray Rice, Greg Hardy and Peterson may feel cathartic, but it doesn't get at the root of the problem. Nor does the social media mob that was after Richie Incognito last year, who was accused of bullying a teammate in his efforts to control his environment – the Miami Dolphins' locker room. Hazing is another example of domination of a deemed lesser person in the guise of shaping them or subduing them. Sometimes that too becomes violent. Incognito didn't quite understand why what he was doing was wrong because it was out of love for a teammate. That sounds a lot like Peterson's reasoning for whipping his child: I was making him into a man.

"I've been with just about every team in the NFL," Porter said. "We have this discussion on manhood. What would it take to create a world where all men and boys are respectful and all women and girls are valued and safe?"

The problem is the generational cycle. The definition of manhood is passed on starting at a very young age. Boys take after their fathers, and if there are no fathers present, they often take after their older teammates or coaches. Sometimes those teammates and coaches reinforce this outdated version of manhood that football tends to recycle.

The coaches who have been put on the spot during this crisis, such as John Harbaugh and Ron Rivera, were football players. They grew up in a football world and they never left. They scream and stomp when something goes wrong, just like their coaches did. They see themselves as builders of men, just like their coaches did. One of the most tone-deaf voices during this period has been Hall of Famer Mike Ditka, who said about Rice, "His earning power is destroyed."

Ditka is a former football player who became a coach. He coached Rivera, who now coaches Hardy.

This doesn't mean these are bad people. They treat their players like their own kids, and they want to help them grow. In most cases, the benefits are profound; how often have we heard a former player praise a coach for "helping me become a man"? But that sometimes means rooting out distractions, and women are often treated like distractions.

The old definition of manhood is passed down, in the isolation of the locker room, closed off from anyone who can interfere. So if some of the comments coming from the football world seem prehistoric, it's because in some sense, they are from another time.

The video of Rice punching his fiancée in a hotel elevator and the photos of Peterson's child with lash marks on his skin may have finally jolted the NFL into the awareness people like Porter have been preaching. "If we're going to make any kind of change," he said, "it's going to be how these men pour into the next generation of men. These athletes could fast-forward these efforts."

We've already seen this work in the case of concussions. For too long, traumatic brain injury was greeted with exhortations to "man up" and play through it. Only when football faced a crisis was there real discussion about how grown men should react to concussion symptoms. Change is always slow to come, but it's hard to argue the NFL is as willfully ignorant about hits to the head as it was before. In that way, the meaning of "man up" has evolved.

We can only hope this is a similar turning point in the domestic violence crisis. Too many transgressions have been overlooked already, and perhaps this national discussion will now lead to rehabilitation of abusers instead of continued mixed messages about how a man is supposed to behave.

After a game last year in which he pulled an opponent's dreadlocks out and dropped them onto the turf, Jason Babin calmly said, "On Sunday I get to be someone else for three hours." Men can be warriors on the field and respectful off of it. Despite all the stereotyping of the last week, most NFL players are just that.

"All healthy men can be vulnerable," Stewart said.

And all vulnerable men can be tough.