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Minnesota Vikings' Adrian Peterson makes his way off an NFL football practice field at Winter Park in Eden Prairie, Minn., Friday, Oct. 11, 2013. Peterson said he is certain he will play Sunday despite a serious personal matter that caused him to miss practice earlier this week.Elizabeth Flores/The Associated Press

The NFL does many things well, but on-the-fly, extrajudicial, magical thinking is not one of them.

The league took a public-relations acid bath in September upon the release of video showing Baltimore running back Ray Rice knocking his wife out in an Atlantic City elevator.

Rice was a well-known commodity, but no superstar.

After botching their initial response sans video – a two-game suspension – the league fell on him like a piano. In essence, Rice was suspended forever.

Since they'd already dinged him for the beating, the rationale for this second round of discipline was that he'd lied to commissioner Roger Goodell about the incident. Goodell said Rice neglected to tell him he'd struck his then-fiancée, now wife, Janay Palmer.

This was all uncharted territory. The league and its union have contract language that sets out how disciplinary proceedings go down. In their desperation to distance themselves from a wife-beater, the league largely ignored them.

They hired a former judge to hear the case – a further buffer. It didn't seem to occur to them that a judge is going to look at the law, rather than concern herself with the financial health of a vast entertainment business. The law isn't helping the NFL here.

That decision boomeranged badly when Baltimore GM Ozzie Newsome testified under oath that he'd been in the room with Rice and Goodell, and that his player told the commissioner he'd hit Palmer.

Goodell is a lawyer himself. If you're thinking about going to whatever law school he attended, remember to ask if they do money-back guarantees.

A decision in the Rice case is expected in the next week to ten days. Based on the facts presented and the league's rationale for suspending him, Rice will most likely be reinstated. He's still toxic. More to the point, he's aging and of dubious on-field value. Nobody will want him.

But he'll get his money and set himself up with a lawsuit. If the NFL has any sense, they'll pay him to go away.

However, the NFL plainly has no sense, and so this will drag on forever. We're already into the most dangerous stage of any legal battle – the part where both sides are fighting on principle.

Even more telling, and potentially more disastrous, is the case of Adrian Peterson.

Peterson was accused of abusing his four-year-old son with a wooden switch. The news dropped less than a week after the Rice video was released. The timing was perfectly imperfect.

Charges were laid. The league ran over to Peterson's house with a gallon-jug of cleansing gasoline and lit him on fire. Like Rice, he was suspended indefinitely (or, in this case, until his charges were resolved).

After two months, they've been resolved. Peterson pleaded no contest – neither admitting guilt nor denying the accusation. He turned to the league and asked to be reinstated. Now the NFL has no idea what to do.

They asked Peterson to attend a disciplinary panel on Friday. There is no basis for such a meeting in the NFLPA's collective bargaining agreement. All Peterson is compelled to do is meet with the commissioner. So he refused.

After two months on the run from the Rice video, the players' union is clearly feeling emboldened again. On Sunday, Peterson issued a press release explaining why he'd skipped the meeting.

In parts, it's completely tone deaf. He accused the league of behaving "without fairness or accountability … The process they are pushing is arbitrary, inconsistent, and contrary to what they agreed to do."

A 220-pound man who beats a preschooler with a stick isn't going to get a ton of sympathy on the basis of "fairness," but he's right.

The league and the union agreed to a process. The process is being ignored.

The NHL is feeling this same pinch with abuse accusations levelled against Kings defenceman Slava Voynov. He's been suspended a month, but not yet charged.

All it proves is that sports leagues were not built to adjudicate the off-field lives of their workers. No large employer is.

Peterson may find out his punishment as soon as Monday. He's already missed ten games, with pay. This is a hugely fraught decision.

The NFL would love to hammer him, and in so doing erase away the memory of their dithering on Rice. But they are creating precedent here. Since none of this is precisely codified, precedent matters.

What happens when Tom Brady – to imagine the league's worst-case scenario – is accused of a violent crime? What if he's never charged? What if he's charged, but doesn't get to trial for two years? Is Brady's career over? Who makes that decision? Is the NFL just going to keep retired judges on retainer? Can they turn this into a moneymaker – 'NFL Court TV'?

It's not that the leagues lack answers. They can't even formulate the right questions.

You can't write a line into the CBA that says, "Suspensions work this way. Unless the fans are really angry, and then they work this other way."

There's no good solution to this for the NFL (or the NHL, or MLB, or anyone). They're stuck on PR spin-cycle forever. They'll continue lurching from crisis to crisis, taking the public temperature, then over- or under-reacting depending on what they've heard.

There's an easier way to manage this problem.

You could depend on your teams to do the right thing. If a guy is accused of something awful, the team puts him on a shelf. They do their own (transparent) investigation. If they decide they can't live with him, they pay him and cut him. Without colluding, every other team respects that decision. It's called shunning. It's worked a long time.

But the league knows. They know that teams cannot be trusted to do the right thing, if the right thing is going to cost them wins. There will always be a place for a bad man who's a good player.

And so we stagger forward with this pseudo-judicial farce, pretending there are rules. There are no rules, because morality is too slippery a topic for definitions.