Fear and self-loathing in Kansas City
October 1999. Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin lies motionless on the Veterans Stadium turf. Almost 20 minutes go by before he is lifted onto a stretcher with his head in a makeshift brace and is wheeled off the field with a career-ending injury. All the while, cheers rain down from Eagles fans. A moment that then Philadelphia Mayor Edward Rendell had to admit "in terms of bad taste was as bad as it gets."
A classic moment of ugliness. But at least Irvin didn't have to hear the joy of thousands of people at the expense of his pain come from his home crowd. People he thought and believed had some semblance of love for him, even when he was at his worst on the field.
Kansas City Chiefs QB Matt Cassel isn't that lucky. His "Michael Irvin" moment came yesterday at a place he considered home, inside Arrowhead Stadium, as he lay on the turf with a head injury that forced him to be removed from the game.
The usual, customary and morally appropriate silence that accompanies serious injuries to players from their own fans didn't apply. Not for him. Not on this day. The cheers Cassel heard for the time he was down were probably more painful than the hit he took from the Ravens' Haloti Ngata that laid him out in the first place.
So here we are, America. Facing the truth of our internal hate; facing the depths of how low we can go.
A fan base turned on one of its own. Something that in the past has been regarded as what can happen "on the road" or "in hostile environments" in sports happened to a player in a game where -- even though there was a cry for a QB upgrade and/or replacement -- the team (and player) felt that in a worst-case scenario the city still had his back.
But it didn't. And Cassel and the rest of the Chiefs found out that loyalty between players and fans can sometimes be a one-way street.
One resident and Chiefs fan put it to me in a text after the episode: "Nobody deserves that treatment but maybe this is more about our culture of hostility and NOT thinking before we speak or feeling that we have the 'right' to engage in this kind of behavior."
Somehow, I don't think this new expression of fear and self-loathing is exclusive to Kansas City. It just happens to be the city to go there first. Let Tony Romo have a few more five-interception games in Cowboys Stadium like the one he had last Monday night against the Bears; let Philip Rivers keep melting down, putting only 3 points on the board and having 45.2 QBRs like he did against Atlanta two weeks ago; let Michael Vick keep playing the way he's been playing in almost every game this season, let him keep having multiple-turnover games that end up being the reason the Eagles don't make the playoffs.
The uncalled-for cheers that Cassel heard in Missouri could very well echo to Texas, Southern California and Pennsylvania so fast and so loud that, by season's end, we'll have forgotten where this whole trend started and who was the player whose hometown fans turned on him first.
"It's 100 percent sickening," Chiefs tackle Eric Winston said after the game Sunday. "I've never, ever -- and I've been in some rough times on some rough teams -- I've never been more embarrassed in my life to play football than at that moment right there ... Matt Cassel hasn't done anything to you people."
But maybe Cassel has. Not to the degree that he got what he deserved or that the fans were justified in cheering him being physically hurt, but the resentment for Cassel as the Chiefs' quarterback has been building for months. The cheers could have been more about the physical nature of the game forcing a decision that coach Romeo Crennel and the front office seemed reluctant or didn't have the guts to do.
As one Chiefs fan put it: "They've been booing [Cassel] since he threw out the first pitch at the All-Star Game. He has the distinction of being booed at both stadiums and the sports complex."
The Chiefs should have seen this coming. This incident with Cassel didn't come from nowhere. In K.C., it's been brewing. For years. The frustration began to take its toll long before that hit by Ngata. Just like Tom Cruise shouldn't have been surprised when Katie Holmes walked out the door; the Chiefs shouldn't be surprised by what occurred on Sunday.
Last season the Denver Broncos recognized the "climate" when they finally put Tim Tebow into the lineup. The Chiefs could have done something by taking the temperature of their own fan base quicker and making a move of their own. So, the Chiefs are as much to blame for putting their quarterback through a situation like this as the fans are for expressing their misdirected feelings in the way that they did.
So other NFL teams take note. This is where we are in the culture of sports. There's only so much today that a fan base is going to take. The economics of professional sports have brought to the forefront the coldheartedness of the game outside of the game.
NFL fans pay a lot to be NFL fans, from tickets, parking, souvenirs, refreshments and gear all the way to their cable or satellite bills. Which explains the nature of the fans' behavior and, partially, the direction of it.
As two Chiefs season-ticket holders told me:
"Fans who pay $27 to park ... $75 (at least!) [for a] ticket want to express their displeasure," said the first season-ticket holder.
"Don't fans with the money they invest on a weekly basis to their teams have a right to like or dislike a player?" another season-ticket holder asked. "They are in the business of performance -- if you don't perform then you are disliked."
This is where hostility and economics and sports get married. Or at the least, have a ménage a trois.
Guido "the Killer Pimp" said it so beautifully in "Risky Business": "In a sluggish economy, never, ever [bleep] with another man's livelihood."
Football is America's livelihood and the economy is in bad shape. Fans turn to football. An expensive diversion, any given Sunday is an escape or relief from their everyday. So, there is not a lot of tolerance or patience for extended NFL futility.
Not that it justifies what the fans in K.C. did, but it explains where they stand. And where other cities may follow. The days of supporting your own for the sake of it or because it's the "right thing to do" may be coming to an end. Fans don't have the time and can't afford an overabundance of B.S. anymore.
Maybe it's time for all of us to rethink the true meaning of loyalty and how sports fans of the future may choose to express it.
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