It's not just business.
Running back Adrian Peterson and the Minnesota Vikings have fallen into one of the biggest traps of the NFL landscape: They've made things personal. While the vast majority of player movement is simply a transactional or accounting matter, Peterson and the Vikings let his current status with the team be entirely saturated with emotion and feelings.
From the moment of Peterson's arrest for reckless or negligent injury to a child, the Vikings have been hamstrung by and confused about what they should do with their franchise cornerstone. He's still a veritable superstar, but now he has a lot of proverbial baggage to carry around.
He also just had his 30th birthday.
So the Vikings stood by him, until they didn't. Then they suspended him, until they legally couldn't, and he has since sat in limbo in NFL terms after pleading guilty to a lesser charge of reckless assault of a child.
The NFL has now reinstated Peterson, via numerous sources including Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk, and that means the league will no longer be able to pay the running back not to play. On the little-used but suddenly popular "Commissioner's Exempt List," Peterson was, for much of last season, in an entirely theoretical situation. It was something the Vikings didn't really have to worry about. As Kevin Patra of NFL.com explains here (h/t to Albert Breer and NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport):
The Exempt List is a special player status available to clubs only in unusual circumstances. The List includes those players who have been declared by the Commissioner to be temporarily exempt from counting within the Active List limit. Only the Commissioner has the authority to place a player on the Exempt List; clubs have no such authority, and no exemption, regardless of circumstances, is automatic.
The Commissioner also has the authority to determine in advance whether a player's time on the Exempt List will be finite or will continue until the Commissioner deems the exemption should be lifted and the player returned to the Active List.
This is personal for Peterson, and that makes things messy. Because it's messy, it's almost impossible to get a handle on what is going to happen.
This all started with a simple press conference.
It sounds crazy, but this has little to do with morals and even less to do with football. Rather, this is about Peterson being bad for business. The Vikings saw that firsthand when Radisson Hotels pulled its Vikings sponsorship and when others threatened to follow suit.
Radisson had been on the backdrop of every Vikings press conference, and it's not surprising that the company changed that when the topic of the pressers started to concern the support of someone who assaulted a child. At the time, other sponsors—including major ones like Nike and Budweiser—turned up the heat as well, as reported by NBC News.
This makes Peterson a liability.
Don't misunderstand: The man can still play. No one is saying otherwise. Even at an advanced age for running backs, he has shown no signs of slowing down and should have at least one to two good years left.
He can play; he just doesn't want to do it for the Vikings, according to ESPN.com's Ben Goessling, who has written about Peterson's reluctance to play for a team he feels didn't support him as much as he wanted. Here's a quote from Peterson, per Goessling's report:
I'm still uneasy, to be honest with you. I'm still uneasy about a lot of things that took place within the organization. Of course those guys ultimately supported me, and I'm grateful for that. But ultimately, with me being able to be on the inside and see how cards were dealt, how things were worded, this, that and the other, it's about protecting your brand, your organization, what you have built. In the (grand) scheme of things, not one person counts over that. I get that.
At least some of this seems to come from the fact that Peterson has been entirely obtuse about just what he did wrong, if anything. Though he apologized, the apology was filled with equivocations and rationalizations that made it seem as if Peterson would be willing to comply with the law of the land, but that since his intentions of discipline were pure, he was morally in the right.
Here is where the rubber meets the road, because the Vikings still need to treat this like a run-of-the-mill business decision. They can't let loyalty—whatever that means in today's NFL—cloud their judgment for Peterson. Legally and contractually speaking, they hold all the cards, because they can do whatever they want with a player who isn't a free agent until 2018.
But that's speaking about leverage as if it's only applied on paper.
In the real world, there are ripple effects to the economics of NFL decision-making that are a lot more convoluted than he needs to shut up and play because they don't have to release him.
No. In reality, the Vikings are not going to pay Peterson or allow him to take up a roster spot if he isn't going to play for them. They're not going to let this storyline drag into 2015 and beyond.
They're also not going to let Peterson exist solely as a sunk cost. No, they're going to discuss moving him (for whatever absurd asking price) because that's what teams do—just as 31 other teams should be discussing just what exactly they might be wiling to give up for him.
Of course it's not what they want to do. No one wants to move on from a franchise-defining icon who still has good football left in him, but that's the end result of their mishandling of things earlier, as well as the situations Peterson placed them in by his actions.
The Vikings and their fans can continue to hope things will be settled and Peterson will be in a Vikings jersey and (relatively) happy next season. The team would have to come crawling back to him on its knees, and he would likely have to admit more fault (to himself more than anyone) than we've publicly seen so far.
Failing that, we're looking at the last chapter of the Vikings career of one of the state's all-time athletes. For his entire career, Peterson has been what people think about when they've thought about the Vikings. The problem, now, is that when he thinks about the Vikings, he's not so sure he can stomach the thought of him being there any longer.
The moment it stopped being business was the moment the Vikings should've been ready to move on.