When I first saw headlines last week about the death of NFL’s star Adrian Peterson’s young son, I was shocked. And then I was confused.
Shocked, because the two-year-old boy, Ty, had been viciously beaten by a man apparently responsible for watching the child. It was an act of evil, pure and simple. Confused, because the relationships between the various parties was not clear. Quite the contrary.
Joseph Patterson, the man since charged with two felony counts of aggravated battery of an infant and aggravated assault domestic, was the live-in boyfriend of Ty’s mother. They lived in South Dakota; Peterson, of course, lives in Minnesota, where he is the record-chasing running back for the Vikings.
Had Peterson been married to the mother? No. Peterson has never been married. In fact, it turns out that Peterson was not even aware of the boy’s existence until a couple of months ago, and he had not seen Ty in person prior to the beating. Peterson, however, is engaged, and he has two children living with him, one of whom is also two years old, according to the New York Times. And:
Peterson said he offered financial support for Ty and Ty’s mother after he learned he was the boy’s father. He was arranging to go to Sioux Falls when the boy was injured on Oct. 9. Peterson skipped practice on Oct. 10 to visit Ty in the hospital, the only time he saw him alive. The next day, with Peterson back at practice, Ty died after he was taken off life support.
The various stories posted on ESPN.com and other sports-related sites provided the basic facts of the story as they came available, but the focus of many pieces—and especially of television commentary—was on whether or not Peterson would play in the Vikings’ next game. And, if so, how would he do? And so forth. Among the most interesting set of quotes were these, in the Times story:
“Everyone grieves in a different manner,” Vikings long snapper Cullen Loeffler said. “It’s unfortunate that he’s actually caught in this situation. We’re here to support him — anything that he needs or anything we can help him through.”
Peterson said: “People are going to speculate. People are going to say this and that. I can’t let that bother me.
“I’m too focused on trying to mourn, be there for his mother, taking in the loss of my son,” he continued. “I haven’t been able to focus on anything else outside of that.”
Loeffler’s quote is itself unfortunate and we probably shouldn’t read too much into it. But the remark, “It’s unfortunate that he’s actually caught in this situation,” is quite surreal, nonetheless. Granted, the vicious and fatal actions of an adult cannot be directly placed on anyone else. But there are plenty of serious questions here. Yet few commentators, especially in the sports news industry, have been willing to tackle them (pun intended), one notable exception being Susan Reimer of the Baltimore Sun, who wrote a column, “Adrian Peterson’s version of ‘Parenthood'” (Oct 16th), that took on the elephant in the room:
In the days since the child’s death, it has come to light that the unmarried Mr. Peterson may have had as many as five children by four different women. They include a 6-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy by his current girlfriend, a 4-year-old with a dancer in a “gentleman’s club” in Dallas and a 3-month-old with a waitress in Minnesota. He is said to be providing financial support to those children.
All of this transpired at the conclusion of a week when the call for the Washington Redskins to abandon a nickname viewed by some as offensive reached fever pitch, culminating in sportscaster Bob Costas’ self-righteous address, delivered during halftime of Sunday Night Football.
President Barack Obama has suggested that owner Dan Snyder think about changing the name, the league is applying pressure on the team, and any number of sportswriters have said they will not use the name in their reporting.
But, so far, nobody has criticized Adrian Peterson for his careless and cavalier sexual behavior.
I suspect that few have publicly criticized Peterson for his various off-the-field exploits, in part, because a substantial number of professional athletes carry on in the same way (Ray Lewis—six children by four women—comes to mind, as does Shawn Kemp—seven kids by six women—as well as Dwight Howard—five kids by five women—and so forth; the list is long). Plus, there is the fact that many sports commentators, whether on television or the radio, are about the most politically-correct collection of group thinkers you’ll ever find. They will rant and rail day and night about Michael Vick being “scum of the earth” (as the local sports guy here in Eugene, Oregon, refers to him) for running a dog-fighting ring, but they won’t say a thing about athletes rutting like crazed rabbits, “fathering” children left and right, or having their impregnated girlfriends get abortions.
(To be fair, Sports Illustrated ran a major piece in 1998, by Grant Wahl and L. Jon Wertheim, detailing what was already a huge problem in professional sports in the United States. One takeaway quote: “’I’d say that there might be more kids out of wedlock than there are players in the NBA,’ estimates one of the league’s top agents, who says he spends more time dealing with paternity claims than he does negotiating contracts.” Ah, the thrill of victory, the agony of a positive paternity claim.)
Reimer asks, “While the death of the boy is a horrible tragedy, that doesn’t disqualify us from considering Mr. Peterson’s casual approach to parenthood. Why are we so indifferent to this kind of casual, serial fatherhood?” The reasons are many, but three stand out. First, the sexual revolution has, with a sort of perverse logic, brought us to the point where judgments about “private” behavior are considered out of bounds, even while the depiction of such behavior can be seen and heard nearly anywhere and everywhere. When “everyone is doing it,” few are going to buck the system and question the self-serving habits of the age. Besides, it can be reasonably argued that what is taking place among wealthy athletes merely reflects what is taking place throughout society, regardless of socio-economic status, as U.S. News & World Report noted earlier this year:
Nationwide, African-American women reported the highest rate of out-of-wedlock births, at 67.8 percent. American Indian or Alaska Native women reported a 64 percent rate, while Hispanics reported 43 percent and non-Hispanic whites reported 26 percent. Asian-Americans reported the lowest rate of out-of-wedlock births, at 11.3 percent.
Secondly, our entertainment-obsessed culture is not that interested in judging the objective goodness of acts, but usually fixates on how “exciting” or “different” or “entertaining” a person or their actions are. Likable figures tend to get a pass on most actions, while those deemed unlikable are raked over the coals; that’s part of the game. Peterson is a great gridiron talent who overcame a serious knee injury to lead the NFL in rushing last year, and is thus likable. And so it would be deemed poor taste to say much of anything about his fathering ways, especially since it is much easier to cast him as a tragic figure. Never mind that study after study shows that a substantial amount of child abuse occurs at the hands of live-in boyfriends, or that children raised by single mothers are far more prone to every sort of “at risk” behavior.
The third reason is that fatherhood is badly misunderstood and often badly misrepresented in the dominant culture. A perfect example of this, one that is especially fitting in the context of the Peterson, is found in this August 8, 2013, ESPN interview with Philip Rivers, longtime quarterback of the San Diego Chargers, which featured four fairly negative questions from various online sources. Rivers and his wife, Tiffany, who are Catholic, have six children and are expecting their seventh. One of the four questions was not even really a question, nor was it about football: “Six kids? Regardless of your profession, it’s impossible to be a good parent to six kids. Not enough hours in the day.”
Rivers answered; “It’s a two-year rotation: Once the diapers come off of one, we usually have a newborn. And we have another one on the way, due in October. I help when I can, but my wife, Tiffany, is the key. My big, growing family keeps everything balanced and grounded. My oldest is 11 now, and the kids are getting into football. They’re Daddy’s biggest fans, and they don’t get on you as bad as most fans. If you throw an interception, they still love you.”
Anyone who says it’s impossible to be a good parent to six kids is fairly clueless about real parenting and true fatherhood. Not that every family needs to have six or more kids, of course, but almost all of the large families I’ve ever been around have not lacked for love, attention, structure, and good parenting.
My good friend, Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers, recently penned a column, “Mothers Are Not Fathers,” that summed up several important truths in a relatively short space, including the following:
The fact is that God allows earthly fathers to use his name, and with this great privilege comes an awesome responsibility: a responsibility, sadly, that many men have not taken seriously or have ignored completely leading to the “mothers are both mom and dad” mentality. A man becomes a man and a father by doing things that a father ought to do. In revealing and in reliving on earth the very fatherhood of God, a man is called upon to ensure stability and harmony within the family. He does this by exercising generous and selfless responsibility for the life conceived in the womb of the mother; by taking a more active role in, and making a more serious commitment to his children’s education and prayer life, a task that he shares with his wife; by working in a job that is never the cause of division within the family but promotes and provides for its security and unity; and, most importantly, by being a living witness and example to his children of what it means to live and act as a man of God, showing his children first-hand what it means to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and how that relationship is lived-out daily by loving the truth, goodness, and beauty of our Catholic faith.
Any man can be a daddy but it takes a real man to be a father, and the sooner we earthly fathers begin to appreciate the great gift we have been given and begin living the mission of service to our families—when we begin to make a gift of ourselves to our wives and children, and participate deeply and personally in the Fatherhood of God—the faster we will arrive at a civilization of love and a culture of life rooted in the transforming power of the Father’s endless mercy and love.
How very true. When men fail to be fathers, a civilization of love cannot be established, nor can it flourish. Instead, a culture of lust, use, abuse, and death will develop and spread like a cancer. And who are the victims? The most vulnerable, beginning with young children. However, that fact is not only not entertaining, it is very inconvenient, which means we’ll continue to hear plenty about the unforgivable sin of dog-fighting and the blight of supposedly offensive team names but not too much about the many young children dying to have a real father.