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Adrian Peterson and the sport fan's new quandary: Watch or not?

The NFL and other US sports leagues have a history of athletes acting badly. But with domestic abuse charges piling up against players like the Minnesota Vikings’ Adrian Peterson, the NFL, especially, may be losing control of its carefully guarded image. 

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    Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson looks on during the Vikings' NFL football game in St. Louis Sept. 7.
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The indictment for child abuse of one of the NFL’s best players, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, hit an already reeling world of sports on Saturday, raising a stark question: What’s a fan to do when some athletes’ values fall so far out of step with their own? 

The allegations against Mr. Peterson – that he seriously injured his 4-year-old son, in what Peterson called a “normal whooping” – comes after the country cringed at video footage of now-former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice cold-cocking his wife-to-be in a New Jersey casino. Simultaneously, the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks had to deal with a series of racist remarks from its owner and general manager, and, in what became almost a footnote, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was slapped with a sexual assault charge, which he has denied.

As a result, fans were forced to take notice of “the most controversial week in sports history,” as the Boston Globe’s Jeremy Gottlieb called it.

To be sure, athletes and league bosses acting badly or, worse, breaking the law is hardly eye-opening anymore. It’s also true that today’s media often flourishes on manufactured outrage.

Moreover, there has been some sympathy for players laboring under over-sized expectations that take a heavy toll on their bodies and their minds. In Baltimore, both male and female fans were seen wearing Rice jerseys this week, presumably in solidarity with the indefinitely suspended player.

But this week’s litany of family violence in the homes of fabulously-paid athletes has given at least some fans pause about how Sunday afternoon pastimes seem to have careered fundamentally out of step with some of country's most cherished values, including protecting one’s family from harm.

Indeed, the situation has given rare pause to some fans about their own role in the dead-serious dramas playing out in the media.

“[W]hat’s a sports fan to do?” wonders Mashable’s Sam Laird. “If you’re like me, your sports addiction runs way too deep to give up now…. In the short term, however, I probably won’t watch much – if any – NFL this weekend. Instead, I’ll go outside. Feel the sun on my face. Enjoy the breeze. Lay in the grass. Maybe join a pickup basketball game – the kind of break from ugly reality that being a sports fan used to provide.”

Previous doping and drug-abuse scandals in sports were serious and leagues took action, but were ultimately ignored or downplayed by many fans. The more recent domestic abuse allegations – underscored by video, in the case of Rice, and pictures, in the case of Peterson’s son – seem to have struck a more profound note.

“Physical abuse of women or children is completely unacceptable … but something about [what Peterson is alleged to have done] is absolutely sickening, reprehensible and unforgivable,” writes Patrick Rishe, a sports economist at Webster University, in St. Louis, on Forbes.

The “whooping” with a tree branch switch, police say, happened in May, in Spring, Texas, after Peterson’s son had tussled with another of his children over a video game. The beating, police say, caused several injuries to the boy, including cuts and bruises all over his back, buttocks and legs. There were also defensive wounds on the child’s hands, doctors testified.

Peterson’s attorney said Friday that Peterson was employing the kind of discipline imposed on him as a child. “Adrian is a loving father … [and] it is important to remember that Adrian never intended to harm his son and deeply regrets the unintentional injury,” the lawyer said.

To be sure, a lot of American fans will tune out the news and tune into the games this weekend. But it’s also clear that the confluence of perverse behavior – much of which was uncovered by media operations far out of the sports mainstream – has shaken the league-fan partnership.

Indeed, allegations of spousal and child abuse – and concerns about whether sports leagues are in turn serious about punishing top athletes in their playing prime with possible career-ending suspensions – have pushed the sports fan quandary to a new level, some sports columnists argue.

So far, two other NFL players involved in domestic abuse allegations – 49ers’ Ray McDonald and Carolina Panthers’ Greg Hardy – have been allowed to continue playing until their court cases are settled.

After Friday’s indictment, the Vikings have pulled the prolific Peterson from the Sunday lineup, which will make it hard for the team to beat the New England Patriots. Fans will likely watch carefully how the NFL treats the allegations. Traditionally, the league has waited for court cases to be settled before taking action, but it’s sure to come under intense pressure to deal with Peterson more immediately, especially after the Rice debacle.

“[Roger] Goodell, the embattled commissioner, should call an emergency midweek timeout, summon every player in the NFL to Chicago or Dallas on Tuesday, the players’ day off, and hold a seminar with lectures by experts in anger management, domestic violence, child abuse, drug abuse and every other abuse their players are capable of performing,” writes Gary Myers, in the New York Daily News. “Then Goodell should emphasize that it’s a privilege, not a right, to play in the league.”

Through his career, Peterson, a former MVP, has rushed for 10,190 yards and 86 touchdowns through six years in the league. His home life has been plagued with trouble. As a child, Peterson watched a drunk driver kill his brother, Brian, who was riding his bike; his half-brother, Chris Paris, was shot and killed in Houston, in 2007; and last year, a 2-year-old son Peterson barely knew, Tyrese Ruffin, was killed by the boy’s mother’s boyfriend.

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