The image of the NFL which so many people work so hard to protect seems to have taken a beating of late. The Ray Rice pummeling of his wife in an Atlantic City elevator was the highlight of the past few weeks, but the recent story of Adrian Peterson’s “whooping” of his 4 year-old son now takes center stage. For the moment. Stay tuned.
As a resident of Minnesota who notes in the large print of my contract with the state that I will always be loyal to the Minnesota Vikings, it pains me to think that the talented and seemingly likable Peterson would strip a branch from a nearby tree and whip his son for pushing his brother; the boy was later taken to the doctor’s office with cuts and bruises over much of his small body. As it happens, I was switched as a child on the backs of my legs. My mother lost her temper, switched me with a willow stick and then insisted that I wear long pants to visit one of her friends so the welts would not be visible. Peterson says he was whipped as a boy and Bill Cosby makes fun of the fact that his father took his belt to him and his brother when they were little. That’s the way it was done in those days.
But no more. Now any sort of corporal punishment is regarded as abuse and the parent is held accountable. The jury is out on whether or not this is a good thing, but on the face of it uncontrolled anger on the part of a large and strong parent “whooping” a young child is clearly abuse. I ask, however, is all corporal punishment abuse? My sense of it is that when done in extreme cases by a parent who is on control of his or her emotions it may be necessary and effective way to manage a child who is otherwise out of control. It is not crystal clear to me that corporal punishment used judiciously is more harmful to the child than is the almost total absence of restraint so prevalent today.
But because of the extent of damage to his son, the case of Adrian Peterson is exceptional, and as the latest in a series of violent incidents on the part of an astonishing number of NFL players it raises several questions. Those questions not only address the issue of what sort of punishment would be appropriate for a man as strong as Peterson for taking out his anger on a helpless boy. They also address the question of whether his loss of control in this case (which he admits and which is apparent from the consequences) might be the result of the use of anabolic steroids. It is certainly the case that this man, along with his fellows in the NFL train their bodies to be as hard and strong as humanly possible. And it is clear that there is widespread use of steroids in the NFL to assist in improving performance in a violent sport. Further, it appears to be the case that their use can result in uncontrolled violence.
We need to recall the case of Lyle Alzado who died of brain cancer which was at the time attributed to the use of anabolic steroids. His description of his condition shortly before his death is gripping:
I started taking anabolic steroids in 1969 and never stopped. It was addicting, mentally addicting. Now I’m sick, and I’m scared. Ninety percent of the athletes I know are on the stuff. We’re not born to be 300 lbs or jump 30 ft. But all the time I was taking steroids, I knew they were making me play better. I became very violent on the field and off it. I did things only crazy people do. Once a guy sideswiped my car and I beat the hell out of him. Now look at me. My hair’s gone, I wobble when I walk and have to hold on to someone for support, and I have trouble remembering things. My last wish? That no one else ever dies this way.
The issue of whether steroid use lead directly to Alzado’s death has been questioned, but increasing testosterone in a male animal most assuredly increases the tendency toward violence, which in football players is already high. Further, the NFL has known about the use of steroids since the 1960s and instituted a testing policy in 1987 that resulted in suspensions as early as 1989. However, as we know from cases like those of Lance Armstrong, there are ways around testing and the use of anabolic steroids appears to be widespread in the NFL — if not in college football and even at the level of the high schools. Many a high school football player is now as large and nearly as strong as a professional football player thirty years ago. Perhaps it is a coincidence. Perhaps it is not.
In any case, the NFL players union has recently approved a new drug testing policy that includes such things as HGH which will supplement the testing of steroids even though, again, there are ways around those tests as well. The agreement also guarantees lesser punishments for players who might be caught out using marijuana. But in light of the recent incidents of violence on and off the football field, where players are larger, faster, and stronger and incidents of injury to the players themselves (including concussions) are increasing — coupled with growing numbers of cases involving players being violent toward those whom they profess to love — one must wonder if the NFL has the will or the ability to curb the use of the supplements, and the violence. After all, the games sell out and pro football is Big Business.