On Monday, ESPN's SportsNation published a poll about the Vikings' reactivation of Adrian Peterson, the sort of reflexive, wallpaperish question more designed to eat up 20 or 30 seconds of the 11 a.m. SportsCenter than to gauge any actual public sentiment. A few days later it published another, asking a question seemingly in mirrored opposition to the first, this time about Peterson being lobbed into a volcano. The results defy any logical expectation, at least at first glance.
"Do you agree with the Vikings' decision to reinstate Adrian Peterson?" Monday's poll asked. Out of more than 490,000 voters, 60 percent said yes, they agreed, Adrian Peterson should be accepted back to the team. Three days later, once the Vikings had walked back their decision, but without further incident or revelation about what Peterson had actually done—the most disturbing details had all come out the previous Friday, and been well picked-over by the time Monday's votes rolled in—SportsNation asked, "Do you agree with the Vikings' decision to bar Adrian Peterson from all team activities," pending an end to his case that likely won't come until 2015. Fifty-seven percent of the 425,000 voters said, yes, they agreed, Adrian Peterson should be barred from the team.
So what's going on here? These are just two dumb Sportsnation polls, but I think they get at something interesting and true about the NFL's fanbase, especially given how lower-order the process of clicking a poll on the ESPN.com homepage is.
A spread of 17 percentage points over just three days without further development seems impossible with a body of voters this size, even accounting for some shading from acquiescence bias in the questions' phrasing. But every state showed a drastic softening of views on how OK it was with Adrian Peterson beating his kid with a stick. The effect is most pronounced when you look at the states that flipped. Texas, Peterson's home state, voted 68 percent in favor of reinstating Peterson on Monday, registering more than 24,000 votes. By Thursday, 21,000 more voters split 50/50 on banning him. Other Southern states fell into the same pattern. Georgia went from 68 percent agreeing with reinstatement to 55 percent disagreeing with the ban on 7,600 and 6,800 votes, respectively; Alabama fell 72 percent to 56 percent with more than 3,000 votes in each poll; Mississippi 72 percent to 60 percent; North Carolina 67 percent to 51 percent. If we can assume for the sake of sanity that Cris Carter et al did not turn the country on its heel on the topic of child beatings, something else must have happened over those three days to register this sort of shift.
The simplest answer is that the Vikings and by proxy the wider NFL reversed course. "Do you agree with your NFL team's decision to ..." is a leading question in the most deterministic sense possible. Try getting an NFL fanbase to turn on its management for anything beyond the pale marker of, say, touchdown celebrations or shitty quarterbacks controversies or playoff games on Fridays. Try getting an NFL reporter to do the same, for that matter.
So for fans and stooges alike, the guys in charge finally getting one right took them off the hook for any sort of critical assessment. With the Vikings taking the contrite high ground, everyone could maintain the high moral dudgeon while dutifully toeing company line. The ensuing coverage, in effect, awarded Goodell a field promotion. For acts of valor in the face of withering professional deficiencies, Roger Stokoe Goodell is hereby named All-Father of Midgard. By Thursday morning, the NFL media/sanitation department had cleared enough of the debris to, if not dig Rog out of the big-ass hole he's dug for himself, at least begin clearing a path.
It turns out that SportsNation was asking the same question both times. It was, "Do you agree with the NFL?"—full stop. And the results are plain to see. This is the source of the NFL's blithe arrogance; it's why its executives can pop off about Roger Goodell stepping up as a "leader in the domestic violence space" without anyone cueing up a laugh track. The Goodell administration proceeds as though it has a mandate from the public because it does, in every Sunday slate, and every Monday after.