At first it seemed that the death of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson’s two-year-old son would come and pass through the sports world as the tragedy it was, with only a little misplaced criticism about Peterson playing football just two days after the death. Less than a week later, it has already devolved into a discussion about Peterson’s fatherhood, with columnists casting Peterson as the stereotypical black absentee father who, in the words of some, shares some of the responsibility for the child’s death.
That began when it came out that Peterson had only recently found out the child was his — it wasn’t, as early media reports assumed, the oft-photographed Adrian Peterson Jr. — and that Peterson the elder first met him as the child lay on his eventual deathbed. Along with a speeding ticket and a dismissed resisting arrest charge, that gave New York Post columnist Phil Mushnick all the evidence he needed to insinuate that Peterson shared responsibility for the tragedy, and it has only gotten worse since various media reports told the world that Peterson has allegedly fathered seven children with multiple women, none of whom he is married to, though he has two with his current girlfriend.
Since then, the Baltimore Sun‘s Susan Reimer has asked “where is the outrage” about Peterson’s alleged promiscuity, CNN’s Don Lemon has said Peterson “appears to be more MIA, than MVP,” and a whole range of blogs and entertainment types have both implicitly and explicitly cast Peterson as an absentee father who cares nothing about his children or the women who gave birth to them (many of them, at the same time, referring to the women flippantly as “baby mamas”).
Even if it isn’t the columnists’ intention, immediately painting Peterson that way perpetuates convenient stereotypes, which is easy to do in a world where both the black absentee father and the deadbeat professional football-playing dad are well-known tropes. But here’s the irony: in his column, Mushnick criticized the media for painting Peterson as a great person even though we don’t really know him — then characterized him in an entirely opposing way even though he doesn’t know anything about Peterson or his situation either. Neither do any of the other writers casting Peterson as a deadbeat know how involved or uninvolved with his children he is or the specifics of any of these situations. According to media reports, Peterson regularly pays child support. Other reports made it seem that Peterson was working to become a part of Tyrese Ruffin’s life before the child’s tragic death. According to one of the mothers, Peterson visits their child regularly during the offseason but could “do better.” The same, I’d imagine, could be said for a significant number of America’s fathers, absentee or not.
Data, which only Lemon used to try and make a cogent point, indeed suggest that children are safer and better off in two-parent homes. But single-parent homes exist throughout the country — they aren’t unique to African-Americans or whites or football players or any single group — and this child may have ended up in one whether Peterson had seven children or one. We don’t know. We have no way to know. We don’t know what led to Peterson’s circumstances. We don’t know what type of father he is or isn’t. We don’t know why he wasn’t more involved with this child already, or if more involvement would have saved the child’s life. Instead, we’re putting Adrian Peterson into a mold we think we already know, that of the absentee black father — football player or not — who isn’t there for his kids and never will be. And substituting a stereotype for what isn’t known at all misses what is plainly evident: another man beat a 2-year-old to death.
We could focus on that, on why child abuse is so rampant in America in both single- and two-parent homes, why four children die a day due to abuse of some sort, why 80 percent of them are, like Tyrese Ruffin, younger than four, why 30 percent of those who survive will one day abuse their own children. Of course, there isn’t an easy stereotype for that, since according to national statistics, child abuse “occurs at every socioeconomic level, across ethnic and cultural lines, within all religions and at all levels of education.”
Perhaps Adrian Peterson could do better. Perhaps he could have been more responsible then and can take more responsibility now. I certainly hope he supports his children not only financially but physically and emotionally too. The truth is, though, that both individual situations like this and larger issues surrounding both child abuse and fatherhood — including, yes, black fatherhood — are far more complex than any of the columns or discussions that result out of situations like this ever allow. Instead, they devolve into rants about (mostly) black fathers leaving their “baby mamas” and children behind, deadbeats turning the wheels on a cycle of deadbeats. Far from being productive, it’s lazy perpetuation of stereotypes that aren’t correct.
We don’t always have to run there. Sometimes it’s enough to admit we have no idea, to just mourn the tragic death of a 2-year-old child, and let Adrian Peterson and his family, no matter its size or situation, mourn it too.