Anyone living in the United States who has watched TV in the last two weeks is undoubtedly aware that the NFL is in the midst of a storm of bad publicity. First, we saw the chilling videotape of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice delivering a punch to the head that knocked out his then-fiancée (now wife) Janay Palmer, and then roughly dragging her off the elevator and dropping her like a sack of potatoes on the floor. Only days later, the Minnesota Vikings found themselves in the midst of a similar scandal when their star running back Adrian Peterson was charged with felony child abuse in Texas, where it is alleged he beat his 4-year-old son with a “switch.” Perhaps learning from the debacle that ensued when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell originally imposed a meagre two-game suspension on Rice for his misdeeds, the Minnesota Vikings have suspended Peterson from games and team activities indefinitely, although since he continues to draw his $11 million dollar salary, he is hardly a sympathetic character at the moment. Meanwhile, the incidents involving NFL player violence against their partners and children keep surfacing.
A lot has already been said and written about these cases, and much of the discussion is thoughtful and educational. Numerous commenters, including New York Times columnist Michael Powell, have pointed out that we should not be so shocked that players who are rewarded for brutality on the football field revert to violent behavior at home. He makes an excellent point. After all, the NFL is not the only place where people who use force, sometimes brutal force, in their jobs have a hard time turning it off at home: the military and various police forces have faced similar issues. Moreover, we live in a society with a high tolerance for violence, at least violence of a recreational sort—as evidenced by numerous TV shows, video games and movies.
Our dirty little secret as a society, though, is that we have a high tolerance for corporal punishment in general, and a tendency to view how other people parent their children as “not our business.” In fact, studies have shown that while spanking rates have declined in the United States since the mid-1970s, more than three quarters of pre-school age children are still disciplined with spanking. In fact, in one study published by Desmond Runyan of the University of North Carolina, approximately one-quarter of respondents admitted to hitting their children on the buttocks with an object such as a paddle or switch. In fact, another UNC study in 2002 found that almost half of the eight- and nine year-olds in the sample were hit with objects as a form of discipline. Not everyone in the world shares the American tolerance for spanking. During the past few decades, more than 20 countries (most of them in Europe) have passed laws banning corporal punishment of children. Such bans seem to lead to decreased public support for corporal punishment, even if the laws themselves do not include significant penalties for violations.
There are those who believe that the intense discussion surrounding the Rice and Peterson scandals will serve as a turning point: that from now on mainstream American culture will be less tolerant of family violence. But I am not so sure. Adrian Peterson has been singled out for doing what a lot of parents do, and it makes us squeamish to hear of a small child being beaten and bruised by his father. But it will take a lot more public education about the lack of efficacy and harms of spanking or beating children before people will let go of the notion that to spare the rod is to spoil the child. If the NFL really wants to make a difference, it should pay for public service spots about why corporal punishment doesn’t work and what parents could do instead. Otherwise, we are just acting shocked, shocked that violence happens after a violent game, played in a violence-tolerant world.