The news out of the NFL has been brutal these past few days, but certainly good evidence of my long-held conviction that sport is a powerful and important “contested terrain” for all manner of social issues, especially those pertaining to race. The issues and questions about corporeal punishment, race, and culture raised by the indictment, suspension, reinstatement, and re-suspension of Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings are at the top of that list of complicated social issues to which sport can help bring attention. But it is, as we sociologists like to say, really complicated. Below are a few brief but useful points and insights–the first, snippets from a 2012 New York Times commentary by Maryland sociologist Rashawn Ray; the second from a recent facebook post by Joe Soss, a sociologically-inclined political scientist who works in the public policy school here at the University of Minnesota.
First, a few empirical points from Ray’s 2012 commentary on race and spanking:
–”Blacks are more likely to spank their children.”
–”These punishing methods [also] differ by region and class.”
–”…corporal punishment in schools is allowed in Southern states;” and “…whites in the South more likely to spank than whites in the Northeast.”
–”Although some argue that spanking leads to physical aggression or passive-aggressiveness, the evidence is inconclusive.”
–”Altogether, spanking without communication is problematic and should not be used as the primary form of punishment.”
And this from Soss:
“In the wake of Adrian Peterson’s indictment, it’s remarkable how quickly the discussion has coalesced around the idea of a “racial divide” in cultures of parenting and corporal punishment. Some of the articles have been terrible; others have used the issue to say some smart things about race and ethnicity in America. But the focus of the conversation itself is a striking example of “racialization” in action. I’m not saying we should ignore the modest but persistent racial differences in opinion on this issue. But somewhere around 80% of *all* Americans say that spanking is sometimes appropriate. And depending on which polls you look at, the opinion gaps associated with racially identified groups are often smaller than differences associated with partisanship, ideology, religiosity, region, and age cohort. There is a lot going on here, it seems to me. But I’m reminded of something Ta-Nehisi Coates has often urged us to do: Pay close attention whenever widespread societal phenomena are reframed, for African Americans, as expressions of something distinctive to Blackness. Reflect on the ways this narrative implicitly exempts and exonerates Whiteness. Investigate how it moves from observations of small differences to claims of opposing group cultures. Ask what role it plays in constructing and reproducing understandings of racial otherness.”
None of this, I should note, is about the Peterson case itself; rather, it is about one of the larger sets of issues and debates that this case has given rise to.