Should convicted criminals be allowed to compete in professional sports?

It was a Monday morning when I found out the news.  My alarm went off as I rolled over to grab my phone.  It was early in the football season, but I needed to see how my fantasy team was doing.  I clicked the app and tried to wake myself as it slowly loaded.  My team lost for the second week in a row to start the season.  To those of you who don’t play fantasy, the first thing you do after losing a week is completely overreact over every player on your team.

However, this week was a bit different.  I saw that my first round pick Adrian Peterson earned me a whopping 0 points for the week, while all my other players did fairly well.  I was devastated, because football fans know the only thing that could hold Peterson back from getting points would be an injury.  Or so we thought.  I clicked his name on the app to see how badly he was injured and then I read that he had been suspended indefinitely by the NFL for child abuse charges.  Twitter later confirmed this for me as thousands of people were tweeting over the hottest sports scandal.  I thought to myself; Adrian Peterson belongs in the NFL, there must be a mistake.

Well there wasn’t a mistake.  After a bit of researching I had seen the gruesome and unethical photos of his son’s body post-whipping.  The child said he was being punished for pushing his brother off a bike.  This didn’t seem like punishment to me, it went above and beyond any form of punishment I received as a child.  Why would he do that to a 4-year-old, let alone his own son?  I went to television for answers, as nearly every major media outlet was covering this story.  I turned the channel to CBS, where I was able to hear both sides of the spectrum.  Radio host and CBS football analyst Boomer Esiason had this to say about Peterson:

“I don’t buy [upbringing] as an excuse. Peterson is 6’1″, 220 pounds talking about hitting his 4-year-old son with what is known as a switch. I never even heard of that until the other night. It’s a tree branch that parents use to whip kids. I found it so reprehensible. I got emotional about it and was very intense about it. It’s no excuse in my eyes.”

adrian peterson

Initially I agreed with his point.  Peterson should know how much stronger he is than a small child and be able to discipline him without scarring.  I went on about my day, talking about this recent football scandal with friends who also couldn’t believe what Peterson had done.  Some said that he should never be allowed to play football again, others said he should serve jail time and then return to the NFL like Michael Vick did in 2009.  I was leaning more towards the former than the latter.

I didn’t actually think that Peterson was done playing football.  If Vick had come back after his dog-fighting ring then Peterson would probably come back too.  What I want to discuss now is should he be allowed to comeback?  Regular people like me, would probably lose their job if their workplace found out they had been charged with child abuse, especially if the media caught wind of it.  Some people might say you deserve to lose your job for actions like this and I would not hesitate to agree.  However if you banned an athlete from playing in a sports league it becomes much larger than losing a job.  Banning Peterson from the NFL is basically banning Peterson from playing football because the NFL has a monopoly on professional football.  An accountant who is charged with child abuse may lose his job, but he wouldn’t be banned from being an accountant.  Why should athletes be treated differently?

If they were to be treated equally, Peterson would lose his job with the Vikings and face punishment from the law, but then he would be free to sign with another team if they wanted his services.  That isn’t fair to the Vikings because not only do they lose a star player, but another team would get stronger.  I think this is the biggest reason that we have to treat athletes differently.

The precedent has been set already in sports that you will face punishment from the law and from the league over any felonies you commit.  Like Vick, NHLer Todd Bertuzzi returned to professional sports after a 17 month suspension for sucker punching Colorado Avalanche forward Steve Moore.  He also recently settled his case in civil court with Moore.  Star athletes have too much value to their teams for the league to ban them, so instead they face harsh penalties that usually involve missing games without pay.

There’s a point that hasn’t been addressed yet and that is the intent or severity of the crime.  Every situation is a bit different, but there are some common factors that should judge whether an athlete should still be allowed to play.  Is there reason to believe that the athlete might do these actions again?  If not, then a punishment for the crime should be given and the athlete deserves a second chance.  If a player has committed multiple acts of the same crime or multiple crimes then the league needs to assess whether mental health is a problem.  I think all criminals deserve the chance to go through rehabilitation and try to turn their lives around.  If crimes are committed after this then it would be fair to ban them from playing anymore.  In terms of severity, leagues should assess whether they are putting any of their employees, including the players in any danger during the game.  Serial killers are an example of this.

The value of professional athletes is ultimately too high to disallow them from competing in professional sports.  Unless the intent or severity of the crime are putting others in danger, they deserve the right to continue playing sports because it is their profession.  Running backs like Adrian Peterson tend to have short NFL careers (about 10 years) and they need to accumulate as much money as possible while they can to provide for themselves later in life.  The punishments we are given to them are quite severe since they can lose millions of dollars just by missing a few games.  Adrian Peterson belongs in the NFL, he made a mistake and will face a fitting punishment for that mistake.  I’m on the other end of the spectrum now, like Charles Barkley who had this to say about Peterson:

I’m from the South. I understand Boomer’s rage and anger … but he’s a white guy and I’m a black guy. I don’t know where he’s from, I’m from the South. Whipping — we do that all the time. Every black parent in the south is going to be in jail under those circumstances…I think the question about whether Adrian Peterson went overboard … Listen, Jim, we all grow up in different environments. Every black parent in my neighborhood in the South would be in trouble or in jail under those circumstances.”

Kyle Gustin

Resources

Esiason, B. (2014, September 15). Esiason: ‘I Don’t Give a Damn How Peterson Grew Up’. Retrieved November 17, 2014, from http://boston.cbslocal.com/2014/09/15/esiason-i-dont-give-a-damn-how-adrian-peterson-grew-up/

McNeal, G. (2014, September 16). Adrian Peterson’s Indefensible Abuse of a 4-Year-Old Likely Violates Texas Law. Retrieved November 17, 2014, from http://www.forbes.com/sites/gregorymcneal/2014/09/16/adrian-petersons-indefensible-abuse-of-a-4-year-old-likely-violates-texas-law/

Peterson, A.  (2014, September 15).  Statement from Adrian Peterson.  Retrieved November 17, 2014, from http://www.vikings.com/news/article-1/Statement-From-Adrian-Peterson/aabb41f8-1afe-4133-8b30-71390b6a3fbf

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