Column: In the NFL, only money talks

Has the NFL’s handling of domestic violence changed your perception of professional football? Will it change your viewing habits? Will you stop watching games? You can join the conversation on our Facebook page or tweet your thoughts using #WTOP.

WASHINGTON — “We made a mistake, and we need to get this right. It is important to always listen to our fans, the community and our sponsors.”

And our sponsors.

The last three words of that quote, from Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wolf in reference to the organization’s swift 180 in their dealings with star running back Adrian Peterson, is the most telling. Because when we take a step back from the sudden interest in a domestic violence issue that has coasted under the radar for year, what we see is not organizations standing up for moral bedrocks, but corporations saving face for the almighty dollar.

When allegations of Peterson’s indictment for child abuse first surfaced Friday night, the Vikings were quick to act, suspending him for that Sunday’s game against New England. But after a 30-7 thrashing without their star running back, the team held a press conference to announce that they had suddenly changed their minds, and were reinstating their star player, when no facts had changed.

“To be clear, we take very seriously any matter that involves the welfare of a child,” the statement read. “At this time, however, we believe this is a matter of due process and we should allow the legal system to proceed so we can come to the most effective conclusions and then determine the appropriate course of action.”

To be clear, due process has nothing to do with anything. Due process is the legal requirement that the state must respect all legal rights of a citizen. The NFL is not a state. Like any private business, it is not subject to clear such a legal bar in regards to its employees.

Monday night, the Radisson hotel chain, sponsor of the Vikings, pulled their support in the wake of the Peterson scandal. Wheaties yanked boxes of cereal featuring Peterson, scrubbing him from their website.

On Tuesday, Anhueser-Busch and McDonald’s, two of the NFL’s biggest sponsors, issued statements of concern over the league’s handling of its myriad legal issues, but stopped short of taking any substantive action. Nike, however, began pulling all Peterson merchandise from its stores in the Twin Cities. The company’s own issues with child labor laws abroad notwithstanding, the shoe and apparel giant didn’t wait for the Vikings heel turn to get out in front of this issue.

Having already publicly shredded any doubt of their integrity and moral fabric, the Vikings showed us what we knew all along, following only the lead of their marketing dollars. After having reinstated Peterson less than 48 hours earlier, the Vikings sheepishly slipped him onto the commissioner’s exempt list shortly before 2 a.m. ET Wednesday morning.

It’s important to understand what that list is. It means a player is allowed to be around the team, but not practice or play. It means he continues to receive his game check every week. Only NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has the authority to put a player on that list. It is the NFL’s way of dodging real responsibility in taking action, while simultaneously avoiding a grievance from the NFL Players’ Association for a suspension without a legal conviction.

So no, Peterson won’t play, but he’ll still get paid.

So will Greg Hardy, the Carolina Panthers defensive end who was convicted over the summer of a domestic assault. By Wednesday afternoon, the Panthers had moved Greg Hardy to the exempt list as well. Again, the team stepped in to make the decision, while the league remained silently complicit in the background, its formerly camera-friendly commissioner nowhere to be seen.

Late in the day Wednesday, word came from Arizona that Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer had been arrested as part of a domestic violence allegation, from a complaint received last week. According to the New York Times, Dwyer was booked on “a count of aggravated assault causing a fracture, a count of aggravated assault involving a minor, and two counts of criminal damage, as well as a count of preventing the use of a phone in an emergency.”

The victims were said to be a 27-year-old woman and 18-month-old child.

Somehow, after very public cases of domestic violence involving women and children, the former sixth-round pick out of Georgia Tech managed to find the worst combination of acts. He was deactivated by the Cardinals Wednesday night.

It was the first case of a team doing the right thing without being handed a cue card telling it to do so. It also might be the first sign that something good may have come from the original Ray Rice incident that opened these floodgates.

Dwyer’s alleged assault is reported to have taken place back in July, but was not reported until last Thursday, the day before the Peterson allegations came out. In the days following the release of the second Ray Rice video, calls to the National Domestic Violence Hotline rose 84 percent. The victim in Dwyer’s case filed her report on September 11, three days after the release of that video.

Although the Dwyer case may appear to indicate progress from the NFL’s side as well, the league’s other outstanding domestic violence situation.

Unlike the Rice case, which included public video evidence, or the Hardy case, in which he had been convicted, Dwyer has merely been charged. That puts him in the same legal position as San Francisco 49ers defensive end Ray McDonald, who has yet to be suspended, deactivated, or put on the commissioner’s exempt list, having played in each of the Niners’ first two games.

McDonald’s team continues to stand by him, hiding behind the idea of due process, like the Vikings did for 48 hours. Surprisingly, in one of America’s most socially aware and progressive metropolitan areas, San Francisco sponsors have not spoken up yet, threatening to pull their money unless they see action from the team.

By leaving these choices to the whims of individual team owners and management, the NFL continues to do nothing of any actual substance, providing no league-wide guidance.

Mind you, this is not really Roger Goodell’s job. His job is to make the NFL money, which he has done very well thus far. And while he’s purported to be the league’s top cop, coming out to tell us he’s always been tough on issues he still has yet to show any teeth in regulating, he’s really just a marketing guy.

By NFL teams only reacting individually when they feel the pressure from the commercial entities that pay their bills, the league has shown us what we’ve known deep down all along: that its moral fabric is sewn purely from the money it sells itself to make.

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