By Jared Max
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The greatest trick Roger Goodell ever pulled was convincing the world Adrian Peterson didn’t exist.

Is there a difference between Peterson, Ray Rice, Bill Cosby, Keyser Söze, the Boogeyman, and Beelzebub?

Yes.

The first three are real-life human beings. The last three are figments of our imaginations.

Or are they?

Roger Goodell, the NFL’s commissioner, has been depicted as the Devil. Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice and their families, too. Somehow, these people continue to be measured as villainous characters — scary images created by an audience that confuses the stage for reality.

Goodell is a man. Peterson and Rice, too. Their wives? Women. Like you and I, these men and women watch the news. Unlike us, they know what it feels like to have their lives turned into soap operas — where their characters’ storylines are based on public response, and their livelihood is at the mercy of the audience.

Two months ago, Adrian Peterson transformed from the best running back in the world to the worst father in America. Now he is becoming a sympathetic figure.

When I first read about Peterson physically abusing his four-year-old son, I was frustrated because I did not understand why the writer didn’t explain what kind of switch Peterson had used to strike his boy. A light switch? A very big light switch? What kind of switch was this? And who hits his kid with a switch?

When I learned that a switch is a long branch that acts like a whip, I found out that I was an uneducated suburbanite. I also learned that the best player I have ever rooted for on my favorite NFL team was a monster. I was appalled. How deep does this go?

When Peterson told us that he had relayed the same type of physical, parental discipline as he received as a child, the Devil was made human. When we learned that Adrian punished his son because his son pushed another boy off a motorbike video game, the saga became one we know well. A cycle of abuse.

Peterson and his Wheaties boxes were sent off to Siberia. My fantasy football team became decimated, having already lost the services of Rice. Goodell got propped up like he was the lead in “Weekend at Bernie’s” so he could absorb successive shots by every branch of our American media’s firing squad.

Two months since the commissioner pitched a new, kinder and gentler NFL, and the story simmered on back burners, the audience started to wonder: Have we judged these men properly? Did we go to the trigger too quickly? Would we be vilified if the cameras were turned on us?

A retired doctor I met on vacation last summer shared a line with me from his psychologist. He had been told that whenever his son presented him with unbearable news, followed by a proposition that demanded an answer, he should respond, “I hear what you’re saying. I don’t know what to think right now. I will have to get back to you.”

Brilliant!

This advice should become our modern Pledge of Allegiance.

While we watch the nightly news stories unfold and form opinions on the central characters like they’re stars on the silver screen, our emotions flip-flop. The good guy becomes the bad guy like the scary bird lady in “Home Alone” who transcends into a warm-hearted, helpful soul. A guy like Peterson — who scarred his son as his father lashed him — becomes a talking point. The Boogeyman as a breathing man. Even the most critical parental armchair quarterbacks wonder if it might have been best to reserve judgement on Peterson and heed the doctor’s advice: I don’t know what to think right now. I will have to get back to you.

My father recently told me, “If they don’t let Adrian Peterson back onto the field, I’m not going to watch one more NFL game until the playoffs.” I laughed because his strong protest came with an expiration date. But he got me thinking. Is Adrian a victim? Is he being punished by the NFL unfairly? Is Goodell playing the role of parent who can get his way by saying, “As long as you live under my roof…”?

As the news became clear this week that Peterson will not play in the NFL again this year, I thought about a poster that I see whenever I go to my local spot for NFL Sunday 50-cent wings and $5 bar pies. Before the season, Peterson was the main attraction.

(Photo by Jared Max/CBS New York)

(Photo by Jared Max/CBS New York)

This is why he’s not playing. The NFL’s leading actor embarrassed the league. And, while I do not believe the NFL has acted properly in keeping Peterson locked out of the Vikings locker room, I understand that the NFL is protecting itself from Keyser Söze. Running scared, not thinking straight.

The usual suspects — better known as the American audience (all of us) — are immersed so deeply in character today that our lines between reality and fiction are blurred. Robin Thicke has become Marvin Gaye, and Dr. Huxtable was recast as Keyser Söze. Separating Cosby from Jello Pudding Pops is not a problem. However, confusing the actor who cartooned Fat Albert with a movie character portrayed by Kevin Spacey’s Verbal Kint is.

As the actor who imagined Söze paraphrased Charles Baudalaire to break free from the grasp of a police investigation, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

And, like that, poof. He’s gone.

Jared Max is a multi-award winning sportscaster. He hosted a No. 1 rated New York City sports talk show, “Maxed Out” — in addition to previously serving as longtime Sports Director at WCBS 880, where he currently anchors weekend sports. Follow and communicate with Jared on Twitter @jared_max.

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