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Only A Game?: Adrian Peterson & Fandom

News & Features | November 12, 2014

In this column, Jamie Moore addresses the real-world issues implicit in the National Football League. Read his previous thoughts here.

Adrian Peterson

With the Ray Rice scandal fading and the other stars accused of domestic abuse currently navigating the legal system, Adrian Peterson is now the most infamous man in the NFL. Peterson is the star Minnesota Vikings running back arrested on child abuse charges in September, who recently plead guilty to misdemeanor reckless assault to avoid a more serious charge and jail time. However, he’s still on paid suspension, and can only be reinstated by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Until early October, it looked as though the team would have him sit out the season in the hopes that his punishment wouldn’t be so severe that they would have to cut him from the roster entirely. However, recent developments related to this case and other facets of his personal life make that unlikely.

On October 7, the Minneapolis Star Tribune published a lengthy investigative report, detailing the yawning gulf between Peterson’s modest, responsible public image and the sordid events of his personal life. Among other things, the Tribune claims that Peterson has fathered at least six children out of wedlock, including two children born to two women in a one-month period in 2010. The report also asserts that he was the target of a six-month investigation regarding his alleged sexual misconduct and assault in 2011, but also that he was never charged with any crimes.

The report also levels serious charges at Peterson’s charitable organization, the All Day Foundation. According to the Tribune, there are serious discrepancies in the tax filings of the organization, with sums of money as large as $70,000 unaccounted for. In several cases, declared donations by the All Day Foundation don’t show up in the tax filings of the organizations it said were receiving the money, or appear in the filings of different organizations entirely.

Then, a few days after this report was published, Peterson admitted to a drug tester in Texas (the state where his child abuse charges were filed) that he had smoked “a little weed” recently, leading to attempts by prosecutors to revoke his bail and re-arrest him. Although his current plea deal negates those proceedings, he could still be punished both for the child abuse charges and drug use under the terms of the NFL’s drug and personal conduct policies.

At this point, it looks fairly certain that that Peterson will be cut from the Vikings, as I predicted earlier. Many Minnesota fans are disappointed; although he had gotten into trouble before—a speeding ticket, and one dropped disorderly conduct charge—according to most pre-arrest accounts, he was a genuinely kind person. It should also be noted that his new plea deal is only a midemeanor. Still, child abuse and the allegations of the Star Tribune are enough for me, at least until he can prove he’s taken significant steps to atone. It’s immensely sad to hear of this kind of behavior from someone whom I (along with many other people) thought was good, and equally disturbing to think that I and many other people rooted for this guy while he did the things he did.

Fandom

I was planning (before I read about Peterson) for this column to focus primarily on fandom by talking about the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots divisional rivalry. Every year, by dint of sharing the AFC East division, the Bills and Patriots play each other twice. Since the Patriots drafted Tom Brady in 2000, he holds a 23-2 record against them, one of the most lopsided rivalry splits in the NFL.

On the whole, the Bills are one of the more hapless teams in the league. They are the holders of the longest active playoff drought, having not made a postseason appearance since 1999—that’s eighteen seasons without making the playoffs at all. On top of that, they’ve gone 20 seasons without a playoff victory. Since 2000, they’ve had exactly one winning season: 2004, when they won nine games, but still finished third in the division.

Despite this, Buffalo has some of the most intense, active fanbases in the entire league. Every year, when the Patriots come to play, the stadium is packed with raucous, excited crowds, even though the historical record would suggest that Bills fans would be better off spending time on other pursuits, like revitalizing the local economy, or simply spending the winter months indoors.

This, however, is the nature of fandom. It’s not just a tiny cadre of Bills loyalists doing this every year; it’s tens of thousands of people. The same goes for fans of the Cleveland Browns, or Oakland Raiders, or St. Louis Rams, or any of the large number of generally ill-fated, constantly mismanaged teams around the NFL. Every year, there are millions of otherwise normal people who give their time, money, and irrational hopes to a team that, based on history, should be terrible. It’s a form of intense, widespread delusion that society at large happens to accept as mostly normal.

Fans do, of course, cross the line sometimes. There is a well-publicized history of fans exhibiting violent, degrading, deranged, or otherwise horrible behavior: fan-on-fan violence or harassment in the stands, stadium parking lots, or sports bars is the most common negative expression of the insanity of fandom, but there’s also a non-trivial amount of stalking and other obsessive treatment of athletes as well.

Just earlier this season we saw a glaring, shocking example of this negative aspect of fandom during the Ray Rice abuse scandal. While the vast majority of commentators and observers were rightly horrified by Rice’s behavior, there was a sizeable faction of fans who either were satisfied with the comically short initial suspension, or argued that Rice didn’t deserve a suspension at all. There were the Ravens fans who cheered Rice’s name and wore his jersey in public, even after seeing him drag his fiancée across a casino lobby in the video that sparked the entire scandal.

I’m sure there are people in Ravens country who still have their Rice jerseys, the same way I’ve seen people around Boston with Hernandez jerseys. I’m sure there will be people who hold onto their Peterson jerseys if he is indeed cut, despite the recent allegations. After all, at its most intense, fandom is delusion; it is a complete divorce from reality. What else can you expect?

Header image by Bjorn Hanson/Flickr via Creative Commons.