The game began like any other, with no formal memorial to the toddler son of the NFL’s reigning MVP. The Vikings chose not to make a spectacle of Adrian Peterson’s grief, and if you believe the most cynical online chatter, they made the decision more to protect the image of their star player than to honor the deeply personal nature of mourning.
Peterson did not live in the same state as the two-year-old boy and, according to various reports recently, may not have even know that they were father and son until very recently. So, the theory goes, he couldn’t really care about this loss the way a fully involved father would, and his employers couldn’t possibly pay tribute to the relationship and ask thousands of their customers to join in.
The general cruelty of the remarks comes as no surprise. Too often, it seems, the only boundary in our digital star chambers is wherever good taste and decency reside. Few venture there.
In this case, though, the troll community borrowed the most fundamentally flawed element of its dialogue from the rest of us. Because biology linked this child to an athletic superstar, because he somehow belonged to the telegenic AP, he mattered. His death set off debate about how quickly a professional, athlete or otherwise, should carry on after such a loss. The way he died — two days after his mother’s boyfriend was charged with assaulting him — alerted us to the horror of a recent domestic-violence offender, who pleaded guilty to assault against a woman and a young child, quickly taking up residence with another woman and young child.
This happens all too frequently, mostly to children whose lineage doesn’t offer us an opportunity to feel a celebrity’s pain. A police spokesman in Sioux Falls, S.D., where the boy died, seemed justifiably disgusted by the news media’s efforts to confirm the paternity of this child as he still lay on life support, apparently abused to the point of brain death.
“We’re surrounding our investigation around the injuries to this child,” said spokesman Sam Clemens, who withheld the boy’s name at the request of the family. “Who the father is does not come into play in this investigation.”
Valuing children according to the stature of their parents is old news that keeps repeating itself. This attitude, at its worst, has enabled nightmarish treatment of kids in their own homes.
“It was in 1962 that the first child-abuse laws were passed, and that was the first time they ever gave it a name, the ‘battered child syndrome,’” said Lynn Patner, a longtime social worker in California’s San Mateo County. “So children who had been battered before, or really hurt before, the cases sometimes got tried under the animal-abuse laws, which were in effect a lot longer.”
As of Saturday night, Patner didn’t know anything about Adrian Peterson. She had never heard of him, or about the death of his little boy. After a short explanation of Peterson’s place in the world, she cared only that his fame had prompted a reporter to call and ask questions about children in jeopardy.
“Every life is a story,” she said. “This two-year-old boy, his life was a story, and it needs to be told.”
It may come forth in court. Or perhaps through Peterson. He has asked for privacy during this ordeal, and he implored fans via Twitter to stop posting photos of his other toddler son, Adrian Peterson Jr., who was identified as the victim in one of the earliest reports. He also explained that the family was “currently not posting photos of my son who passed away.”
In the end, he may find comfort in leveraging his celebrity for something much bigger than himself. On Sunday, that wasn’t possible. A moment of silence for victims of child abuse would have amounted to presumption of guilt against the man accused of beating the two-year-old boy, jeopardizing the legal case. A moment of silence for Peterson’s loss would have made this tragedy even more about him. It shouldn’t be, and he must know that. If Peterson had met this son at birth and spent part of every day with the child, the story still wouldn’t be about the NFL’s MVP and his painful loss.