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Athletes and Accountability: Adrian Peterson

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Nov. 12, 2014

Back in the sixth grade, I was suspended from my grade school baseball team because I was failing social studies class.  I specifically remember choosing to watch a Minnesota Timberwolves basketball game on TV instead of writing a paper that was due for Social Studies the next day.  So it wasn’t a mystery to me as to why my grade was suffering.

Nonetheless, it was a bit of a shock to be told that I couldn’t do the only thing I really cared about at the time, namely sports.  Let’s just say that that two week suspension was more than enough to help me rearrange my priorities.

It was at about that time that I found out that my favorite player, Stephon Marbury, had fathered a son out of wedlock.  In hindsight, one grown man’s act of fornication was a very sixth-grade-ish thing by which to be scandalized, but I still remember being crushed by the idea that my sports hero wasn’t perfect.  Slightly less surprising was my inability to relate my own plight with Stephon’s and conclude that simply being athletically talented doesn’t mean you don’t make poor choices.

Fast-forward to 2014, and another favorite player of mine, Adrian Peterson, has been sidelined since mid-September for violently over-disciplining of his four-year-old son. And, here again, I have been faced with the uncomfortable juxtaposition of my rooting interest in an athlete being compromised by his missteps off the field.

Perhaps it’s time to stop aligning myself with strangers who just so happen to be good at scoring points in an athletic match, but who - seemingly more often than not - are terribly flawed human beings?

Perhaps it’s also worth asking: Why am I so obsessed with pro sports in the first place?  Is it really any more than celebrity worship, no better than a teenaged girl’s allegiance to Britney Spears?  Of course, I could always spend my time on weightier things, but is there something particularly misguided about caring so much about pro athletes and the teams which employ them?

On the most basic level, I care about pro sports because they’re the best in their field, not unlike a painter might admire Michelangelo or a cook might keep up with the top chefs in town. 

There’s just something about observing a master’s work that is edifying, not to mention entertaining.  And then there’s the fact that there is great virtue required to reach a certain level of genius.  Virtues like dedication, perseverance, and self-discipline are fairly universal traits required to be the best.

But there’s more.  Team sports require teamwork and leadership, humility as well as magnanimity, all the while fiercely competing at the highest level while maintaining the composure necessary to exhibit good sportsmanship.   

And, of course, there’s the territorial aspect of sports, whereas I am a fan of the Timberwolves, Twins, Vikings, and Wild by virtue of my residency in the Twin Cities (for better or for worse).  There’s a sense that these are our teams, our players.  Sports bring people together, where they can collectively experience the ecstasy of victory and the agony of defeat.  Or, in some cases, the gripping scandal of a fallen hero…

...Which brings us back to Adrian Peterson.  Three months ago, AP was one of the most beloved MN-based pro athletes in recent memory.  Now, there are plenty of Vikings fans who will be perfectly happy if he never wears purple again.  Well, perfectly happy is a stretch.  It is the Vikings we root for, after all.

For all the virtues Adrian has exhibited on the way to becoming one of the greatest running backs of all time, it’s become very clear that he committed a grave evil against his son, and caused his son considerable suffering.  The state of Texas was right to intervene for the safety of the child, and the Vikings were right to send Peterson home.

The process seemed to have given AP time to consider his actions, of which, for the couple of weeks, he seemed convinced were not blameworthy.  He now says, “I truly regret this incident.  I take full responsibility for my actions.”  Only time will tell if said regret is sincere enough to precipitate change in his actions, or just enough to get him back on the field and nothing more.

There are some who will probably insist that he never play again.  But it’s worth remembering that it’s only because he’s such a high-profile athlete that he has received such a public and lasting reprimand in the first place.  If Peterson wasn’t a professional athlete, the incident would have likely remained a very private affair.  Instead, he has had an eight-week-long opportunity to help him rearrange his priorities.

In this case, it seems, Peterson’s sports stardom has served to hold him accountable to his actions, not unlike my two-week suspension in the sixth grade.  Participating on a team, especially one which fancies to represent a people, ought to be a privilege and one that must be earned and can be forfeited.

We know being athletically talented doesn’t mean you’re perfect, and so we can’t be shocked when pro athletes, even our favorites, make poor choices.  We should, however, hold them to a higher standard, within reason of course, both for their own good and for the good of those who see them as heroes.