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Peterson case offers opportunity for changing corporal punishment policy 

click to enlarge Adrian Peterson image
  • Montgomery County, Texas, Sheriff's Office
  • Adrian Peterson

For those already ambivalent about the American football industry, the start of the 2014 season has only made a bad situation worse. I admit to spending more than a few hours weekly reading about, thinking about and watching football this time of year. But this focus on football comes with a deep unease because of the self-inflicted wounds that the sport has suffered at the start of the 2014 season.

The Ray Rice domestic abuse case continues to fester with all parties except the victim now engaged in finger-pointing and cover ups. That case is only part of a wave of revelations and allegations of violence and denigration against women by NFL players and team officials. Thrown into this ugly mix is the lingering sense that Michael Sam's sexuality has been a hindrance to a fully fair shot at making an NFL team.

With all this muck opening the 2014 season, and the more fundamental challenges that face football at all levels, one tiny ray of hope shows itself. That is the sense that, because of the centrality of football in American life, the country is about to enter a much-delayed conversation about how children are disciplined in the United States. That conversation, of course, emanates out of the case of Minnesota Vikings star running back Adrian Peterson.

In mid-May, Peterson "whoop"[ed] his 4-year-old son with a "switch" while the child was visiting Peterson's home outside Houston. The "spanking" resulted in cuts and bruises across the boy's lower body. The boy's mother reported the harm done to her son upon Peterson's return home to Minnesota and, ultimately, Peterson was indicted back in Texas for felony reckless or negligent injury to a child. Soon thereafter, Peterson's strong-armed disciplining of another 4-year-old son was brought to light.

Initially, the Vikings suspended Peterson for only a single game. Within hours, following a public outcry from the governor of Minnesota, key Vikings corporate sponsors and rank-and-file fans, Peterson was denied access to any team activities until the culmination of his case.

Peterson has never denied the incident occurred. As his attorney put it, "He used the same kind of discipline with his child that he experienced as a child growing up in east Texas. Adrian has never hidden from what happened." Others have come to his defense and to the defense of corporal punishment as an appropriate method of child discipline. NBA great Charles Barkley defended the action as a part of the culture where he and Peterson came of age: "Whipping is ... we do that all the time. Every black parent in the south is going to be in jail under those circumstances."

Unquestionably, for families across America of all races, corporal punishment is a reality. An ABC News survey last year found that spanking happens in about half of families with children and a deeper analysis of the General Social Survey data by FiveThirtyEight.com showed that about 70 percent of Americans approve of spanking as a method of discipline (with some fascinating demographic variations in approval rates). But, there is growing unease across the country about corporal punishment as more and more folks come to know that frustration with a child allows acts of corporal punishment to cross a line and lead to clear physical abuse. Too often those acts are often accompanied by abusive words that fosters a culture of violence within American homes.

We also know that such punishment is institutionalized within key institutions within society, especially schools. While many states bar the use of corporal punishment in schools and, according to the ABC survey, 72 percent of Americans oppose it, a healthy number of schools across the country — including many in Arkansas — still rely upon it as a primary mode of punishment. According to a 2009 study by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, Arkansas has the second highest rate of school-based corporal punishment in the country overall (just under 5 percent of all students annually).

A recent report mandated by the state legislature shows that in five districts, more than one in five students is disciplined in this manner yearly. We also know that certain subpopulations of students are more likely to be paddled. The Human Rights Watch study found that Arkansas's rate of corporal punishment among students with disabilities is decidedly higher than for other students, and a report last year from Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families found that African-American students were twice as likely to receive corporal punishment than their white peers in the state.

As Barkley and others point out, this practice is deeply embedded in the culture of some parts of the country. But I have the real sense that we are about to see swift movement on opinion regarding the appropriateness of corporal punishment in the generation ahead. The conversations that the Peterson case is producing will mark a key moment in the debate that leads to social and policy change.

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