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Imagine looking up at Adrian Peterson through the eyes of a four-year-old child.
The easy smile that helped make him famous is not there. He's holding a switch. You are a little boy with your pants down and leaves in your mouth.
The police report of what happened to one of Peterson's sons is sickening. The photos, which reportedly show week-old lacerations, are more so.
The act of what happened in Texas to that little boy, if true, is worst of all. Peterson has been indicted for whipping a child repeatedly with a tree branch. There were injuries all over his body, including on his scrotum. There is a warrant for Peterson's arrest.
Through his lawyer, Peterson has stated that he did not mean to inflict such serious harm. It is possible he meant only to teach the child a lesson. That, however, doesn't absolve the Minnesota Vikings star. And Peterson's intentions, however benign they may have been, didn't affect what the Vikings did in response.
The team deactivated Peterson for Sunday's game against the New England Patriots, and to say they had no choice is both too obvious to suggest and too important to dismiss. This entire wretched week has been given over to whether NFL teams should let the legal process take its course in a case of an arrest for abuse. Yes, there are times when the evidence is not enough to override due process. But domestic violence is not often fabricated. And on occasion the details of a police report are so graphic and so heinous that a decision needs to be made for the benefit of the league and the general public. This is not a football decision or a business decision, but a moral decision. The Vikings made that decision quickly and correctly.
They did not rely on Peterson's popularity or his role in the community. They did not hesitate because Peterson has always been considered a nice guy. These were mistakes the Ravens made with Ray Rice, who was also beloved before he punched his fiancée. In some cases, he was beloved after punching out his fiancée.
The Vikings did not think of this as an isolated incident, because the severity of this incident isolates it from anything else. Peterson is an adult who was indicted for inflicting torturous pain on a small child, and there are not two sides to that story.
Nor were there two sides to the Rice incident. A woman being dragged out of an elevator unconscious, followed by a charge of aggravated assault for Rice, should have been enough to suspend the running back from the field regardless of who saw the video of what happened inside. The Ravens' mistake was to wait and see. The Panthers are waiting and seeing with Greg Hardy, who was found guilty in a domestic violence case that included alleged hair-pulling, choking, and threats to kill ex-girlfriend Nicole Holder.
The psychology here is understandable. Teams know these players, or think they do. They invest a ton of money in them, they rely on them heavily, and in many cases they've gone through the vetting process before drafting them. They see them every day.
So do we. Most of those who watch football thought of Rice very favorably before this incident. And Peterson is (or was) arguably the league's most popular player. There was a national outpouring of grief on his behalf when another one of his sons died last year from child abuse at the hands of another adult. When the news broke of his indictment on Friday, the visceral reaction was simple: No, not him. Not Purple Jesus.
Details spilled out in the press and in social media, and still it was easy to give Peterson the benefit of the doubt. It was a spanking. It's a parental matter. It's different in Texas.
Then the photos and police report emerged, and the revulsion was inescapable.
The photos, like the Rice video, stranded us with the fears we tried to avoid. But it's important to recognize how badly we wanted to avoid them. No one wants to think the worst of a hero, but in cases of domestic abuse, the worst is often exactly what takes place. And the child is often hurt most of all, whether he or she is struck.
That's what puts this subset of crime in its own category. It is not like hitting someone in a bar, which Peterson himself was accused of and absolved of last year. Abuse reports that come from within the home, brought by a loved one who has a lot to lose by being publicly shamed, are often enough for an NFL team to take some kind of short-term disciplinary action. Nicole Ford, a San Francisco area domestic violence attorney, told Yahoo Sports this week that out of 500 cases she's taken on, she can think of only one that was made up.
This is not a call for a leaguewide ban of players accused of domestic violence or child abuse. It is, however, a call for the temporary deactivation of players who are arrested for those crimes. Teams have that option, under the collective bargaining agreement, and they should use it the way the Vikings have. The Panthers should use it this weekend for Hardy. The 49ers should use it for Ray McDonald, who was arrested for allegedly abusing his pregnant girlfriend. If there is exculpatory evidence, or valid reason to believe the incident did not occur, the team can reactivate the accused.
"Most jobs, if you're charged with a serious crime, they'd put you on paid administrative leave because they wouldn't want you acting in your full capacity while the due process does play out," Ford said.
Maybe in the past a player could be charged with ugly crimes against a woman or child and the team could wait and see. This is a different era – an era that started this week.
It's easy to look at a police report through the eyes of an executive, or through the eyes of a teammate, or through the eyes of a fan.
Sometimes, though, it's necessary to look at an alleged crime through the eyes of a child.