Step back and chew on this morsel for a second: Less than a week ago, Mike Zimmer and his Minnesota Vikings players were facing the softballs.
They were questioned whether they had to guard against overconfidence after going “5-0” to start the season, as if the 4-0 preseason record really mattered that much, and were asked to talk about how good it felt to have Adrian Peterson back on the field after he was given the preseason off.
Really, that was only six days ago.
But just a couple hours after Peterson was seen making small talk and smiling in the locker room last Friday afternoon, the walls started to close in. Softball questions turned into high, hard fastballs to the chin. He was indicted for reckless or negligent injury to a child – his own 4-year-old son – and flew to Texas to face those charges and post $15,000 bond within a 12-hour timeframe after being seemingly carefree in the locker room.
Just a couple weeks ago, we promoted a video series called Hell Week, looking at a week of training for a high school football team. Hell Week at Winter Park has been the past six days, and anyone who believed the answers were easy was kidding themselves. But that didn’t stop the cavalcade of opinions from raining down in a torrent.
The Vikings deactivated Peterson for last Sunday’s game, let him rejoin the team on Monday and then felt the wrath of sponsors, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and a split fan base. They spent Tuesday discussing their options with NFL executives, Peterson, his agent, Ben Dogra, and the union.
“We made a mistake and we needed to get this right,” owner Zygi Wilf said. “We embrace our role in the community and the responsibilities that go with it. It is important to always listen to our fans, the community and our sponsors.”
Anyone who believes this should have been easy for any of the possible courses of action – playing him, suspending him or placing him on the exempt-commissioner’s permission list – hasn’t dealt much with collective bargaining agreements, sponsorship pressure and a union intent on protecting their constituents. The Vikings’ fan base numbers hundreds of thousands, if not millions, and online polls showed even they were split.
Even now, the players seem split. A few of them, including fullback Jerome Felton, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and receiver Jarius Wright, empathized with Peterson, having grown up or experienced the severity of discipline he took with his 4-year-old son. General manager Rick Spielman is right when he said the pictures of the injuries – which were leaked to a Houston television stadium much to the horror of the mother – were and are “disturbing.”
Nothing in the reports is easy to digest. The lacerations sustained from the use of a switch are hard to excuse, but several reports have painted a broader picture, and last Friday’s statement from Peterson’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin, offered context. Peterson grew up with that form of discipline, as did some of his teammates, and they all felt it made them better men.
Media accounts from Texas also show how acceptable the practice of using a switch for discipline is there.
An excellent, in-depth piece in USA Today tells the story of how open and accepted that harsh discipline was. Roy Cummings, a childhood friend of Peterson’s, told the story of Peterson’s father, Nelson, whipping Adrian in front of about 20 of his high school classmates.
“We still talk about it to this day,” Cummings told USA Today. “My dad was tough, but his dad was real tough.”
Jason Marshall, superintendent of schools in Adrian’s hometown of Palestine, Texas, told USA Today that corporal punishment is “an option” within the school system, and Montgomery County assistant district attorney Phil Grant said in a press conference Saturday that the use of a switch is legal, but a jury would have to determine if Adrian’s repeated use of that switch on his 4-year-old son was “reasonable.”
Cumming said the defensive coordinator of Palestine’s high school team when Adrian played, Booker Bowie, would keep a wooden paddle in his office.
“You would bend over and brace yourself and get however many licks had been assigned for you,” Cummings told USA Today. “Sometimes it would leave a bruise on the buttocks or just a red mark. It was not a pleasant feeling. You were not able to sit for a few hours.”
On Wednesday, the Houston Chronicle further corroborated the atmosphere that Adrian grew up around.
“I don’t care what anybody says. Most of us disciplined our kids a little more than we meant sometimes,” Bonita Jackson, Adrian’s mother, told the Chronicle. “But we were only trying to prepare them for the real world.
“When you whip those you love, it’s not about abuse, but love. You want to make them understand that they did wrong.”
Jackson said Adrian wants to be a good father to all six of his children, and Peterson admitted he has been seeing a psychologist and discovering that there may be better, alternative methods of discipline.
Peterson “felt it was best for him to be able to step away to take care of his legal and personal matters,” owner Zygi Wilf said, “and I believe he said in his statement as well that he wants ours coaches and players to be able to focus on football as he takes care of these personal matters.”
In Minnesota, many are outraged at the photos, and it’s hard not to feel that way. But the team also had a sticky and circuitous legal route to navigate. If they had simply suspended him, that could have only lasted four games, per the collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association. If the Vikings would have released Peterson, they still would have owed him the rest of his $11.75 million salary as a vested veteran because he had played in the first regular-season game. They still do owe him his salary while he remains on the exempt list.
“Any time you have these cases of what I would call a first impression, you need to think outside of the box and become creative to work within the rules, within the CBA to consider all of the legal implications and we felt … that this was the best possible way to accomplish those goals within the confines of the rules that currently exist,” said Kevin Warren, the Vikings executive vice president, legal affairs, and chief administrative officer.
Now it’s up to head coach Mike Zimmer to pick up the pieces and move the team forward. He has lost sleep dealing with the situation while trying to also devise a game plan for on-the-field activities after a lackluster performance without Peterson last Sunday against the New England Patriots.
“I think the biggest thing is I’ve always considered myself a football coach,” Zimmer said. “I am not a Speaker of the House or anything like that. What I do is I get in the film room, I start working on what we have to do, start figuring out how we can get this team better. I won’t say that at the beginning things weren’t easy, but we have a job to do and we get paid to do this. Quite honestly, it’s what we love to do, so it’s kind of our refuge anyway.”
Zimmer’s task may be easier than Peterson’s. The 2012 NFL MVP who has invested significant time and money for children’s causes is now facing abuse charges.
Many people in Minnesota and beyond are appalled. Whether a jury in Texas will be as appalled to the point of conviction is left to be determined.
All we know now is that the situation – for both the Vikings and Peterson – isn’t as clear-cut as it initially appeared to be. There are no easy answers and certainly no winners.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
Yotter: No easy answers in Vikings’ Hell Week
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