Flem File: We are all Kansas City

Kurt Snibbe/ESPN.com

At first, I thought, what a bunch of scumbags.

On Sunday, Kansas City tackle Eric Winston, practically shaking with anger and disgust, called out a small group of Chiefs fans for what he said was cheering after struggling QB Matt Cassel suffered a head injury against the Ravens.

“When you cheer somebody getting knocked out, I don’t care who it is, and it just so happened to be Matt Cassel -- it’s sickening, it’s 100 percent sickening,” seethed Winston, who is, in my experience, a pro’s pro. “We have a lot of problems as a society if people think that is OK.”

I agreed. And so, without giving it much thought, I was quick to join in and wag a condescending finger from afar, condemning such uncharacteristically scummy behavior by the Arrowhead crowd.

But then, I caught myself watching and re-watching, with equal parts horror and glee, the hit that knocked RG3 senseless. After an entire offseason spent discussing player health issues, especially the long-term effects of repeated brain trauma, I still heard myself casually dismiss his injury as a “mild” concussion, even though no such thing actually exists and, at the time, the blow rendered him unable to recall the score of the game.

I had a similarly cavalier reaction back in Week 2 when Seattle wideout Golden Tate led with the crown of his helmet and destroyed defenseless Dallas linebacker Sean Lee with an illegal crack-back block that Tate celebrated by dog-walking on all fours and then flexing his guns while Lee was still groggy.

Later, even as a Detroit native (and, yes, a big fan of the show "Webster"), I could barely be bothered for even a moment’s reflection upon hearing that former Lions great Alex Karras had died after suffering from kidney failure, heart disease, stomach cancer and dementia. Karras, I knew, was one of the more than 3,500 former players now suing the league for not protecting them better from head injuries.

That’s when I wondered:

Am I any better than those fans in Kansas City?

Are any of us?

What Winston was railing against was the dehumanizing of a single football player.

But the hard, ugly truth is we’re way, way past that point.

It didn’t happen in 1999 when many of the 66,000 Philly fans inside the Vet cheered the appearance of a stretcher after Michael Irvin was hurt. ‘Unspeakable, even for us’ said the headline in the Philadelphia Daily News.

And it didn’t happen when some fans cheered after Cassel suffered a head injury in the fourth quarter after getting flattened by Ravens nose tackle Haloti Ngata.

It happened somewhere in between these two events -- one play, one injury and one fan at a time -- as each of us became OK with the notion of football players sacrificing themselves for our amusement.

In today’s NFL, injuries, suffering and the long-term health problems of players continue to rise right along with ratings, popularity and profits. During training camp I talked to Dr. Dan Wann from Murray State University, an expert in the psychology of sports fandom, who said there is little doubt that the violence in football is one of the major factors behind its unprecedented popularity. There is just something deep within us as human animals that cannot resist slowing down and looking as we pass car wrecks.

So, if you cannot separate the violence, and therefore the subsequent injuries, from the entertainment value of the NFL, then aren’t we all, to some degree, morally compromised just like those fans in Kansas City?

If so, maybe we all shouldn’t be so quick to judge. Or, at least, we shouldn’t pretend to be so shocked and appalled by such behavior in the stands.

It’s a big ask, I know, because to the NFL’s great ($10 billion) benefit we are all also hardwired to angrily deny and reject the very idea of this connection between injuries and entertainment. Why? Because we need our weekly fix of violence and escape that the NFL provides, and that can’t happen once we become culpable in the players' suffering.

The NFL is like Big Oil: we know it’s probably bad for us but we just can’t seem to stop driving SUVs. So we deny it, reject it, ignore it, rationalize it -- and wag our fingers at those sick bastards in Kansas City.

In the middle of his locker room diatribe Winston said, “We are athletes. We are not gladiators. This is not the Roman Colosseum.”

Well, for starters, I’ve had countless players, including Chargers linebacker Takeo Spikes, tell me that players do, in fact, take great pride in the idea that they are “modern-day gladiators.”

As a society, though, we are very different than the ancient Romans, right? Sure, we might allow ourselves to be entertained by the violence, pain and injuries that occur inside our football stadiums. But we don’t condemn the losers to immediate execution. That’s ridiculous.

Instead, we simply turn our backs on our gladiators after they leave the coliseum and let them suffer in silence during what are often shortened, diminished, painful and, oh yeah, bankrupt post-football lives while we shake our heads sympathetically and mumble some amoral, obtuse excuse about personal responsibility and all that.

Those Romans were barbarians, we aren’t anything like them. Those fans in Kansas City are horrible, we aren’t anything like them.

Are we?

Let’s be clear: I haven’t changed my mind one bit about cheering when someone gets hurt. It’s still wrong. It’s still disgusting. Obviously there is a moral difference between cheering for an injury and being entertained by a big collision that’s the result of a clean hit that may, or may not, result in an injury. But it is disturbing and worth exploring, I think, how in the current state of the game the moral equivalency between these two events is shrinking to the point of being imperceptible.

As I originally pointed out in a story on Scott Fujita and the NFL at a crossroads in The Magazine’s NFL Preview, it’s a confusing, uncertain time for everyone, fans included, in the concussion-crisis era of the game. The lines of propriety are constantly shifting. Not just on the field, in the case of Bountygate, but in the stands, as well.

As a result, to play the game, as well as to enjoy watching it, requires a new level of cognitive dissonance that also leaves us morally compromised. (To say nothing of being in denial because few people seem willing to own this, including myself.)

From here, though, according to Gary Belsky, the former editor-in-chief of ESPN The Magazine and a noted author and lecturer on decision-making and choice architecture, it’s a short, slippery slope, psychologically, to the kind of behavior we saw in Arrowhead. It’s not a behavioral anomaly but a by-product of dehumanizing football players -- and one we should probably get used to seeing more of in the future.

After all, was cheering Cassel’s injury all that different from media, fans and players passing judgment on Jay Cutler’s heart after he sat out the second half of the 2011 NFC Championship Game with a hurt knee?

Was it any worse than White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle saying he hoped Michael Vick would get injured or Tucker Carlson suggesting Vick should have been executed?

In a way, knowing what we now know, wasn’t it just as debased to still glorify Dallas tight end Jason Witten’s early return from a lacerated spleen?

Or, what about the way we all laughed off Texans QB Matt Schaub losing a piece of his ear after a grotesque helmet-to-helmet hit from Broncos linebacker Joe Mays?

Again, I’m as guilty as anyone. I tweeted how the injury made him a shoo-in for Player of the Ear. Ha. Ha.

But I also wonder, when it comes to player safety, why should I, or the fans in Arrowhead or anyone else, be held to a higher standard than the league or the players themselves?

In The Magazine’s Rules Issue in December 2010 I introduced the idea of getting rid of the most dangerous play in football: kickoffs. Seemed like a good idea at the time. You want to know what I heard back from members of the NFL’s Competition Committee on why that would never happen? They could never get the votes because too many owners had invested millions in kick returners.

The owners could have returned the real refs and the added safety they bring to the game, by paying $100,000 more each per season. Instead they let guys with no major college or pro experience ref the first month of the season.

And we think a few Chiefs fans have their priorities messed up?

Even after Fujita’s suspension was reduced from three games to one, he blasted Roger Goodell in a statement, saying, “[The commissioner’s] positions on player health and safety since a 2009 congressional hearing on concussions have been inconsistent at best. He failed to acknowledge a link between concussions & post-career brain disease, pushed for an 18-game regular season, committed to a full season of Thursday night games, has continually challenged players’ rights to file workers compensation claims for on-the-job injuries, and he employed incompetent replacement officials for the start of the 2012 season. His actions or lack thereof are by the league’s own definition, 'conduct detrimental.'”

The so-called brothers in arms on the field aren’t much better, though. The NFL believes the simple use of thigh and knee pads would help increase player safety and reduce knee-to-helmet concussions. The NFLPA has vowed to fight the league on this. Why? From what I can tell it’s mostly because pads don’t look cool and players think they won’t be as fast. So, as nuts as this sounds, shooting guards in the NBA will continue to wear more protection below the waist than some NFL linebackers.

What’s more, despite what we now know about the long-term effects of repeated head trauma in football, players are still leading with the crowns of their helmets, teeing off with reckless abandon on defenseless opponents and chop-blocking defenders from behind.

Winston is correct to police the stands for unsportsmanlike conduct that hurts the feelings of his quarterback. But, maybe, that energy would be better spent demanding that his fellow players stop crippling each other.

“There are long-lasting ramifications to the game we play,” Winston admitted. “I’ve already kind of come to the understanding I probably won’t live as long because I play this game. That’s OK. That’s the choice I’ve made, that’s the choice all of us have made.”

In the end, though, the most disturbing thing about this entire ordeal was the defense put forth by so many fans who tried to rationalize the behavior in KC as some kind of a privilege they’ve purchased based on the exorbitant prices at Arrowhead, where it costs a family of four almost $400 to attend a game, including $27 for parking.

So there you have it. Inside a football stadium, the modern-day coliseum, the exact price of a fan’s soul has been reduced all the way down to 27 stinking bucks.

This may have all started out with Eric Winston standing up to what he thought was the dehumanization of a teammate.

But a closer look reveals something even more grotesque.

The way football has begun to dehumanize the rest of us.