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Adrian Peterson and the NFL: No More Heroes

The saga surrounding Adrian Peterson has proven once and for all that the line between the NFL and the "real world" has been irrevocably blurred.

Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports

With sports, especially football, we deal in absolutes. There is always a clear winner and loser (with the rare exception of ties of course). A specific champion is crowned every season. We use concrete statistics and objective analytical measurements to form tidy conclusions about what we saw. It's one of the reasons why we love football in the first place: while our daily lives are muddled with uncertainty and doubt, we get to detach and enjoy the simple pleasures of world-class competition.

Another reason why we love football is that they are one of the few forms of meritocracy we have left. It doesn't matter your age, race, creed, or orientation--you either perform at a high level or the team will find somebody else that does it better. If a player can provide even the slightest of advantages for his team, he earns the job. With so much riding on wins and losses, there is very little room for bureaucracy or politics in the high-stakes world of the NFL.

At least, that used to be the case. Sports have become so intertwined with the vast gray areas of our respective moral compasses that it's nearly impossible to separate the two these days. As Uncle Ben famouly told Peter Parker, "With great power comes great responsibility." There's no denying the vast power that the NFL wields over our nation on a weekly basis; but holy hell are they fucking up the responsibility part lately.

If you think this is going to be an article that rips apart the NFL and its players, I can assure you that is not the case. I'm not here to take easy potshots at Roger Goodell and say how he's losing control of the league. (Probably true, but I would only be piling on at this point.) I'm not here to either pardon or admonish the players in the news for all the wrong reasons. I'm simply saying that it's a bit jarring that we have arrived at this point so abruptly.

OK, so maybe it wasn't that abrupt. Charles Barkley has been telling us that he isn't a role model for over 20 years now. We have known for even longer that some (most?) athletes definitely shouldn't be looked up to. [Insert Love Boat joke here.] But when the public perception of someone normally so revered and admired changes for the worse literally overnight, it sucks.

You know what else can kind of suck these days? Being a high-profile athlete that actually behaves himself. Even if you're not among one of the dozens upon dozens of players that end in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, it seems like the world is just waiting for you to screw up. I know it can be easy to have zero sympathy for people with such a high profile; after all, nobody is going to feel sorry for you just because your mess happens to be more public than someone else's. This is the life you signed up for. High risk comes with your incredibly high reward. Deal with it.

On the other hand, nobody grows up with dreams of becoming a professional athlete so they can eventually be followed around by TMZ and have their every move dissected under a microscope by anyone with a Twitter account either. The siren call of fame and fortune seems irresistible at first blush, but is it really worth it when more and more athletes and celebrities that seem to be sailing towards glory crash into the rocks? I'm not going to say that I feel bad for these incredibly gifted athletes that are doing things I can only dream of on a daily basis; I'm simply saying that I can see why the life isn't nearly as glamorous as many would like to believe.

Back in April I wondered aloud whether NFL overkill was starting to take the fun out of being an NFL fan. Mostly I was addressing how Twitter and the 24/7/365 NFL domination of the sports landscape made following a team more like a job than a form of entertainment at times. But then I ran across this passage:

The minute a story breaks, I must have a definite opinion about it or run the risk of never getting my voice heard on the subject. Since I write about the Vikings, I have friends and coworkers ask me about them all the time. If I give an answer along the lines of "I'm not sure, I guess we'll have to wait and see", people get a look on their face like I just farted. "But Eric, aren't you a Vikings blogger? You're supposed to know how this is going to affect the team!"

Another downside of the information age? We know nearly everything about players, which isn't exactly pleasant much of the time. The days of idolizing players and looking up to them as infallible role models are long gone. For every story about a player doing something good in the community, there are three or four about another guy running afoul of the law. Don't get me wrong, I still absolutely love football and writing about it; if I didn't, you wouldn't be reading this. But there are instances where being a super-fan can feel like more of a burden than a blast.

It's almost like I was writing specifically about the Adrian Peterson story five months before it broke.

Talk about burying the lede--it took me this long to directly address Peterson. But it was by design. I honestly had to process some of my high-level thoughts before specifically discussing what has to be the most shocking and divisive story in my 30+ years of Vikings fandom.

The saga has been public for less than a day, yet everyone seems to have drawn their lines in the sand regarding one of the most popular players to ever don a Minnesota Vikings uniform. Do I think Peterson's actions are inexcusable and he should absolutely be cut? Or do I think people are overreacting by calling AP a child abuser? Is he a monster that has been fooling us all along with his million-watt smile? Or is this an isolated case of discipline that crossed the line? Am I completely certain about the severity of what took place that day in Texas? Are the folks sympathizing with Peterson and even justifying his actions completely out of touch or a voice of reason among the hyperbole? Could we ever cheer for him again if he returns to the Vikings?

I have no idea about the answers to any of those questions right now. I have had less than a day to process all this information that slapped us across the face on Friday afternoon; it's going to take a little time for this mess to settle both in real life and in the formation of my opinions.

Here's what I do know: hitting a kid and leaving marks like that obviously isn't OK, regardless of how you were brought up. I also know all of this looks really bad in regards to the future of someone I considered my favorite player less than 24 hours ago. I can appreciate Peterson's cooperation with the legal process thus far, even if I am disheartened that it doesn't sound like the thinks he did anything that bad. I can also appreciate that the Vikings made a quick decision to deactivate Peterson until more clarity is brought to the situation, unlike other teams that may or may not employ Greg Hardy. But I can't tell you what I think the correct punishment is until we're sure we know everything we need to know about what happened. In fact, I'm not sure I'll ever be fully qualified to address some of the questions surrounding this story. Of course as I mentioned in that snippet from April above, "I don't know" doesn't seem to be an acceptable answer in today's talking head/Twitter age. But that's my answer for right now.

What I can answer for you is that this Adrian Peterson story is the final nail in the coffin of any notion that professional athletes should be put on any sort of pedestal for any other reason than being a lot better than us at sports. No matter what we think we know about a player's character and personal life, the narrative can get flipped faster than a news station 1,200 miles away from Winter Park posts a breaking story. We have known that for ages now, but there have always been a handful of players that fans still believe are above the wrongdoing. We already knew Peterson wasn't a saint thanks to the sad round of TMZ stories last year, but nobody thought a story like this could come out about the face of the franchise. This fiasco has proven once again that idolizing players and revering them as heroes is now strictly at your own peril.

This story has made me glad that I have been publicly writing about the Vikings for six years and have had the chance to cover them in person as much as I have. Why? Because my direct exposure to the team has made me a little jaded. I now have a much better understanding of why beat writers seem to meet everything with a touch of sarcasm and vitriol. Because if you actually had to cover this team (any team really; but especially this team) day in and day out as a typical heart-on-your-sleeve fan, it would drive you insane. Sadly, you come to expect stories like this instead of being appalled by them.

Even if all the allegations are as bad as they sound and AP never plays another down in a Vikings uniform, I'm still going to be a Vikings fan. It's in my DNA like a hereditary defect at this point. I care too much about Minnesota Vikings football than I should. That isn't going to change, for better or worse. If the Vikings lose the face of their franchise, there's still going to be a franchise, complete with a new stadium in two years. In the end, we're all just cheering for laundry anyway.

I just wish it wasn't the specific laundry emblazoned with the number 28 that so many Vikings fans (including myself) had hanging proudly in their closet until Friday afternoon. Because once again, cheering for the Vikings and the NFL in general has just become even tougher.