Adrian Peterson Pleads No-Contest to Child Abuse Charges, NFL Still Silent on Punishment.

Minnesota Vikings star running back Adrian Peterson has pleaded no-contest to misdemeanor charges of reckless assault, settling the child abuse case which has lingered over the star. The NFL has not yet publicly spoken about how it intends to deal with the situation.

Adrian Peterson has reached a plea agreement to settle his case without facing a jury, and avoiding jail time. The no-contest plea—in US law, a plea in which the defendant admits no guilt, but simultaneously agrees to accept the punishment—means Peterson will face a nominal fine, of $4,000 (approx. £2,500), serve 80 hours of community service, and be placed on probation, which will likely include regular drug tests, and check-ins with local law enforcement. The terms of the plea include no reference to child abuse or endangerment, which would have likely resulted in much harsher punishment.

Peterson was facing potential charges of felony child abuse, and if found guilty could have faced up to 2 years in prison. The charges were brought against Peterson in Texas, a state which has a notoriously permissive attitude towards the use of physical force in punishing children. Many felt that, given the circumstances, Peterson had a good chance of beating the charges, however, in pleading out, Peterson avoids all possibility of serving any jail time, and gets to move on with his life, and career, that much quicker.

Even if Peterson had beaten the charges altogether, the NFL still holds discretion in punishing players over these sorts of cases, and has, often still chosen to discipline players who have been found innocent by the courts. For example, in 2010 Ben Roethlisberger was accused of sexual assault against a woman. However the charges were soon dropped by District Attorney Fred Bright who was investigating the case. Bright said “looking at all the evidence here, I cannot prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt”. In spite of this, Roethlisberger was still handed a 6 game suspension (later reduced to 4) and league mandated therapy, even after being found innocent in the eyes of the law.

The no-contest plea leaves Peterson free to continue to insist that he was simply exercising his parental right to discipline his child, and allows the NFL to hand out his punishment—likely no worse than he would have faced subsequent his trial—and move on from what has been a very difficult period for the league.

The league has yet to comment on what type of punishment will be given to the player. Peterson has missed most of this season due to the ongoing legal proceedings, but the NFL does not consider this a punishment. He has been placed on the commissioners “exempt list”, which although prevents him from suiting up on Sunday, is not a suspension, and he continues to receive his full salary—around $700,000 per week, for nearly $6 million total while exempt from play so far.

The league will be under a lot of pressure to deal with this swiftly, and decisively. Although a no-contest plea is technically a not-guilty plea, the league will nonetheless need to treat Peterson as if he had pleaded guilty to the charge, or face significant backlash at a time it is already facing criticism for a perceived softness on violence.

The league will inevitably choose to impose some kind of suspension and fine, in addition to options like league mandated counselling, anger management, or other similar rehabilitation courses, additional drug testing and other sanctions. However what exactly the league punishment will look like remains a question.

The commissioner has previously handed out suspensions to players who have pleaded no-contest, in addition to those like Roethlisberger found innocent. For example, in 2011 former Cincinnati Bengals RB Cedric Benson was handed a 3 game suspension after pleading no-contest to 2 misdemeanor assault charges, which was later reduced to a single game—however, this came before the new strict policies put in place to tackle domestic violence in the NFL. Benson’s plea also included jail time—a 20 day sentence, of which 5 was served—whereas Peterson’s does not, so it is unclear how much of a precedent this actually sets.

Some have argued that the NFL personal conduct policy on domestic violence—which mandates a minimum 6 game suspension for first time offenses, and an indefinite ban for future violations—will not apply in this case, as the hastily produced policy appears only to reference violence against other adults.

It was written in response to the criticism of the way the league handled the Ray Rice case, and therefore was written specifically with spousal abuse in mind. However, others contend that because Peterson’s charge specifically excludes reference to abuse against a child, the policy may come into play. If so, Peterson would face, at minimum, 6 more games on the sideline—this time unpaid—though it could be more.

If the league go this route, Peterson will likely spend at least one more week on the exempt list as it is unlikely that the commissioner’s office will have made a decision prior to the Vikings game this weekend against Chicago. In all likelihood, if this policy does apply, Peterson would not see action again until the final week of this season.

If the policy does not apply, then Roger Goodell has, under the collective bargaining agreement, essentially carte blanche to impose whatever punishment he sees fit. Any such punishment would be subject to appeal, and independent arbitration, and a particularly harsh punishment would undoubtedly be overturned eventually, but it would allow Goodell and the NFL to make an example of Peterson, if they so wished. Under this circumstance, anything less than a 4-6 game suspension is likely to be seen by the public as the league once again not taking domestic violence seriously.

However, in both cases the Peterson could push for, or the league could choose to apply the suspension retroactively, considering the time already missed as a suspension—by all accounts, Peterson has complied with all the other terms of a suspension, including staying away from the team—and simply dock him the 6 weeks of pay he has already received. However, many consider that this option is unlikely, short of arbitration, due to the NFL’s recent negative press coverage in light of the Ray Rice and Peterson cases.

Another potential problem for Peterson is the fact that the player admitted to smoking “a little weed” to the courts during his bond hearings. If correct, Peterson’s punishment could also be subject to the NFL’s substance abuse policy, and if Peterson has any previous positive tests for substances of abuse, could face an additional suspension for this.

The final hurdle for Peterson before he is reinstated into the league would be the Minnesota Vikings. Although he reportedly has the support of the locker room, the Vikings front office and owners were quick to respond when the initial charges were brought against him. The team deactivated Peterson even before he was placed on the commissioners exempt list. Depending on what, if any, punishment he receives from the league, the Vikings may choose to sever ties with Peterson, or keep him deactivated, and fellow owners could agree to unofficially blacklist Peterson, which could end his career or at least season just as surely as a formal ban would.

In the past, such a response would be considered very extreme for what is a relatively minor charge, but given the recent scrutiny the NFL has faced for its real or perceived soft stance on domestic violence, Peterson could become a scapegoat, and example of how seriously the owners are now taking any claims of violence against women and children.

Ultimately, we would expect Peterson to return to the league by the beginning of next season, at the absolute latest, and could even be back in time for the playoffs this season, if the Vikings are able to make a late season push. We would expect a 4-6 game suspension. We would not expect Goodell to make this to be retroactive—at least not initially—but Peterson, or independent arbitrators could force the issue, and insist on making his “time served” a suspension. Fellow running back Ray Rice’s domestic abuse suspension is currently under review from independent arbitrators, and if, as expected, his indefinite suspension is overturned, the suggestions of the arbitrator could have an impact on how the league punish players, especially those who were initially arrested or charged prior to the recent changes to the domestic violence policy.

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