Minnesota Vikings Hang On To Adrian Peterson
Receiving no trade offers to their liking or perhaps wanting Adrian Peterson to return to the club all along, the Minnesota Vikings have set the stage perfectly for their star running back’s return after an initial public relations stumble for which they endured withering public criticism.
How did they manage that feat? Let’s take a look.
We didn’t know it at the time, but the storyline for the Adrian Peterson trade began in late August, 2014, when word leaked that Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had received a call from the Minnesota Vikings star running back, during which Peterson expressed a desire to play for Jones’ team.
In retrospect, it appears clear that Peterson knew bad news was on the horizon and that he would not be long for the Vikings’ roster. We used our social listening capabilities to look at the online chatter about the Jones/Peterson conversation:
Adrian Peterson Indicted On Child Abuse Charges
After starting for the Vikings in their season-opening game against the St. Louis Rams a week prior, news broke that Adrian Peterson was indicted in Texas on a felony charge of injury to his four year old son whom, according to Peterson’s attorney Rusty Hardin, Peterson was attempting to discipline using a switch.
Though Peterson maintained his innocence, the news broke less than a week after a video was posted online of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punching his girlfriend in the face and knocking her unconscious in an elevator.
The Vikings announced they would deactivate Peterson for the upcoming game against the New England Patriots.
BREAKING: Adrian Peterson indicted on charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child (via media reports) pic.twitter.com/MY79cOiGOM
— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) September 12, 2014
Photos Of Adrian Peterson’s Son Injuries
About the same time, photos of the injuries suffered by Peterson’s son were published online, clearly showing scars on the boy’s legs.
CBS Houston reported that Peterson appeared “to believe that he had done nothing wrong,” when discussing the incident with authorities. Peterson’s son reportedly said, “Daddy Peterson hit me on my face” and told authorities his father “likes belts and switches” and “has a whooping room,” and that Peterson stuffed his mouth with leaves and hit him with the switch as his pants were down.
That last detail of stuffing his son’s mouth with leaves coupled with the damning photographs would prompt much outraged discussion online, as reflected in this word cloud created from online chatter for September 12, 2014:
Negative Online Sentiment Over Peterson Child Abuse Indictment
Breaking down the online chatter by sentiment, you can see that only a quarter of the conversations reflect positively on Peterson:
The following word cloud reflects the tone of the conversations. The online conversations reflected disagreements about parenting styles, as well as cultural and geographic differences.
The conversations about the story were taking place predominantly on Twitter:
Vikings Misread The Public & Reinstate Adrian Peterson
Three days after news broke of the indictment, the Vikings reinstated Peterson after deactivating him for the second game of the season against the New England Patriots, which they lost 30-7. The team issued a statement announcing the move, the gist of which was let the legal process proceed and let our running back play:
“To be clear, we take very seriously any matter that involves the welfare of a child. At this time, however, we believe this is a matter of due process and we should allow the legal system to proceed so we can come to the most effective conclusions and then determine the appropriate course of action.”
Adrian Peterson’s Statement About Child Abuse Allegations
The same day, perhaps in reaction to the negative online chatter, Adrian Peterson defended himself via his own statement:
Adrian Peterson’s complete statement about child abuse allegations: pic.twitter.com/QgrbSm2gu6
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 15, 2014
Radisson & Nike Suspend Sponsorships
The following day, the Radisson hotel chain reacted to the reinstatement by suspending their sponsorship of the team, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton urged the Vikings to suspend Peterson, Anheuser Busch pressured the league to do something about domestic violence, and Nike withdrew its sponsorship of Peterson:
BREAKING: Nike has suspended its endorsement contract with Adrian Peterson pic.twitter.com/Oq87qNxLYb
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) September 17, 2014
Vikings Reverse Course, Suspend Peterson & Commissioner Puts Him On Exempt List
One day later, the Vikings admitted “We made a mistake” and suspended Peterson with pay and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell placed Peterson the commissioner’s Exempt List, effectively sidelining Peterson indefinitely and shielding the Vikings from further criticism.
How Could The Vikings Be So Tone-Deaf?
From the outside, it seems obvious that the reaction to the Vikings reinstating Peterson would be outrage, especially given the climate that already existed regarding the NFL and domestic abuse.
Perhaps the team made the calculation that criticism from the fans would be mixed, which it was, but didn’t anticipate that sponsors would withdraw their support from the team.
Perhaps they were simply too close to the situation to see clearly. They, after all, worked with Peterson on a daily basis and may have felt they knew he was a good person who made a mistake and that they would therefore stand behind him.
Regardless, this was a situation that cried out for dispassionate, objective outside counsel. If the team got, it doesn’t appear they listened to it but the sponsors surely got their attention.
After initially stumbling badly, though, the team weathered the storm of criticism and watched as the story was shaped more by Adrian Peterson himself than anything the team did or said.
Adrian Peterson Admits He “Smoked A Little Weed” Prior To Court-Ordered Drug Test
With a public already largely critical of him, Peterson buried his reputation a little deeper when he admitted that he’d “smoked a little weed” when he knew he would be subject to a court-ordered drug test.
Peterson Enters No Contest In Plea Deal
After stating he was looking forward to his day in court to clear his name, Peterson pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of reckless assault in early November.
Adrian Peterson Fails To Show For NFL Disciplinary Hearing
Peterson Says A “Fresh Start” May Be Best
On November 21, in an interview with USA Today, Peterson tells former Vikings beat reporter Tom Pelissero: “Maybe it’s best for me to get a fresh start somewhere else.”
Peterson “Uneasy” About Returning To Vikings, Felt “Ambushed”
In mid-February, Peterson expressed more strongly his desire to play for another team, saying he felt “uneasy” about returning to the Vikings, complaining that the was “ambushed” by the team.
A few days later, Peterson’s agent Ben Dogra, would get into a shouting match with the Vikings salary cap specialist, Rob Brzezinski at the scouting combine in Indianapolis.
Peterson’s Agent Says Vikings Aren’t Right For His Client
In late March, ESPN’s Kevin Seifert reported that Peterson’s agent didn’t think ‘”it’s in Adrian’s best interest to play in Minnesota” this season and beyond.’
People Don’t Consider Millionaires Victims
Adrian Peterson’s comments were not likely to earn much sympathy among the public for two primary reasons:
- He was being paid handsomely for sitting on the bench much of the season, and
- His suspension was entirely his own making.
Vikings Say All The Right Things
While Peterson played the victim and his agent tried to force his way out of town, the Vikings’ public posture was pitch-perfect:
- Vikings’ GM Rick Spielman said in mid-January that he didn’t know a team “that wouldn’t want Peterson,” introducing the idea the team may be open to trading Peterson without actually saying so,
- In mid-February, Vikings President Mark Wilf states he wants Peterson back on the team,
- In early March, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer and GM Rick Spielman fly to Texas to tell Peterson face-to-face they want him to return,
- In mid-March, the Vikings make it clear to Peterson’s agent the running back will not be released, and
- In late-April, the Vikings let it be know they’d need to be blown away by a trade offer in order to pull the trigger.
Vikings Perfectly Positioned
While Adrian Peterson and his agent did an outstanding job to portray him as an unsympathetic figure, the Vikings covered all their bases.
They subtly let it be known early on that they could be tempted with trade offers all the while pulling out all the stops to make it known to both Peterson and Vikings fans that they were perfectly willing to accept him back into the fold.
The insistence that they want Peterson back maintains the player’s trade value, especially if teams believe the Vikings have multiple suitors. If they receive no offers to their liking, then they’ve proven to fans that they did everything in their power to welcome Peterson back.
This wouldn’t have worked as well as it has were it not for the fact that the Vikings hold all the leverage:
- They can force Peterson to decide between playing for the Vikings or sitting out another season, a choice no-one thinks Peterson will make,
- In the court of public opinion, most people understand that in any other workplace, Peterson would’ve been fired long ago.
The Vikings Lengthy Public Relations Campaign Paid Off
The Vikings have already set the stage for Peterson’s return by making it as clear as they can that he is wanted. On the field, Peterson’s presence will help protect the development of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and will contribute to an improving offensive attack.
Off the field, they still have a little work to do. Though Peterson’s initial statement after the story about his indictment broke expressed plenty of remorse over what he had done, the running back has yet to express that same remorse in front of the cameras.
There’s a world of difference between reading a statement and being able to gauge someone’s sincerity by watching them, by hearing their tone of voice, by seeing their body language.
Judging by the online chatter, a significant percentage of fans feel like Peterson has yet to acknowledge he did anything wrong. Addressing that before the cameras would likely go a long way toward earning their forgiveness.
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