Discipline Versus Abuse: Three Cheers for the NFL

Adrian Peterson may not see when discipline becomes abuse, but the NFL does.

Posted Nov 24, 2014


Why then was Adrian Peterson suspended without pay for at least the rest of the season for violating the NFL personal-conduct policy? 

The NFL, or at least NFL commisioner Roger Goodell, seems to understand the difference between self-discipline which leads to high levels of performance, and "reckless assault" on a 4 year old boy, the charge to which Peterson pleaded no contest.

The Minnesota Vikings' Adrian Peterson apparently hit his son with a branch, or as he termed it, a "switch." Because of this act of  physical punishment Peterson was indicted on child abuse charges in Montgomery County, Texas, and was subsequently suspended for a year by the NFL.

According to the excellent coverage by Kevin Clark in the Wall Street Journal, commissioner Goodell said that that Peterson must commit himself to the counseling and rehabilitation in order to learn how to properly care for his children. 

Goodell's discipline of Peterson in this regard was discipline at its best. 

First, there was an appropriate consequence.  Allowing Peterson to continue to play for the Vikings would have given an NFL/Vikings tacit permission for him to set a bad example for fans.  Peterson's behavior besmirched the sport of football and his team's reputation as well as his own. In this regard suspending Peterson's right to play for a year gives a clear message that football may be a physically bruising sport but it does not condone parents who physically abuse their children.

Second, the word "discipline" does not mean punishment.  Goodell's advice that Petterson must undergo counseling and rehabilitation suggest that he understands that 'discipline" comes from the same root as the word "disciple."  Parents discipline their children effectively to the extent that they effectively teach their children, guiding them to grow up to be capable adults, self-respecting and considerate of others.  Goodell, like a good parent, was explaining to Peterson that he needs to learn, from counseling and rehab, how to act appropriately as a Dad.

Self-discipline implies ability to become one's own teacher.  Athlete's with strong self-discipline practice long hours, listening closely to their coaches' suggestions, and in these ways continually better their skills and perform their best.

Self-discipline does not get imposed by external punishment.  The abuse that Peterson received as a child may have been "well-intended," just as Peterson himself claimed to have been well-intended in physically abusing his child.  Good intentions paved the road to we all know where.  Peterson probably has succeeded in his sport in spite of, not because of, his father's brutally punitive parenting methods.

Self-discipline in fact comes from love, from love of the game, from self-respect, and from coaches that lovingly teach athletes how to play their best.  Unfortunately, sports of all sorts and especially football have too many coaches who treat their athletes, verbally at least and sometimes also with excessive workouts, like Peterson's father treated him. 

In a statement after the charges, Peterson didn’t dispute allegations of physical discipline but said: “I am, without a doubt, not a child abuser. I am someone that disciplined his child and did not intend to cause him any injury.”

This statement is worrisome.

Does Peterson understand the meaning of the word  "discipline" as teaching? 

Apparently not.  He is continuing to equate discipline to punishment, to infliction of pain on a child.

Goodell  in this regard also was impressively clear.  He apparently wrote in a letter to Peterson that the yearlong suspension from NFL play was in part because Petereson had not shown sufficient remorse for his actions.  He explain in his letter to Peterson that, “When indicted, you acknowledged what you did but said that you would not ‘eliminate whooping my kids’ and defended your conduct in numerous published text messages to the child’s mother. You also said that you felt ‘very confident with my actions because I know my intent.’ These comments raise the serious concern that you do not fully appreciate the seriousness of your conduct, or even worse, that you may feel free to engage in similar conduct in the future....Further, the injury inflicted on your son includes the emotional and psychological trauma to a young child who suffers criminal physical abuse at the hands of his father.”

May many football fans learn from Peterson's mistake in misunderstanding the nature of discipline.

If so, then the "discipline" that Goodell and the NFL have assigned to Peterson could prove to be a blessing for the all-too-many children whose parents believe that the best way to raise good children is to verbally berate or physically punish them. 

At the same time, too many football coaches are too tough on their players.  "Punish your body!" maybe needs to be replaced by "Push your body," or "Put out more, and then more!" lest abusive attitudes get spread in and from our all-American sport.

May all football fans who are parents learn that discipline is teaching. 

May all football fans who are parents learn also, and for this I quote a friend of a friend,

"Your child's success or lack of success in sports does not indicate what kind of parent you are...However, having an athlete that is coachable, respectful, a great teammate, mentally tough, resilient and tries their best IS a direct reflection of your parenting."


For an indexed listing of Dr. H's posts, see Dr. H's Blogposts on her clinical website.-


Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D, a graduate of Harvard and NYU, has authored From Conflict to Resolution for therapists, plus the Power of Two bookworkbook, and website that teach the couple communication skills for successful relationships.  

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