American sports fans have plenty of nasty habits. They get into drunken fights in the stands, chant profanities at officials and throw stuffon the field. In Kansas City this weekend, we saw one of the worst: the habit of cheering when players get hurt.
After Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel was forced to leave the game with a head injury during the team’s 9-6 home loss to the Baltimore Ravens, the crowd, frustrated with Cassel’s underperformance, started applauding. Ugh — especially given how much we’ve recently learned about the dangers of concussions. In the locker room after the game, Chiefs offensive lineman Eric Winston scolded the Kansas City crowd:
We are athletes. We are not gladiators. This isn’t the Roman Coliseum. People pay their hard-earned money to come in here. I believe they can boo, they can cheer, they can do whatever they want … There are long-lasting ramifications to the game we play … I’ve already kind of come to the understanding I probably won’t live as long because I play this game. That’s O.K. That’s the choice I’ve made. That’s the choice all of us have made.
But 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% sickening … I’ve been in some rough times on some rough teams. I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life to play football than at that moment right there.
I get emotional about it because these guys work their butts off. Matt Cassel hasn’t done anything to you people … Hey, if he’s not the best quarterback, he’s not the best quarterback, and that’s O.K. But he’s a person. And he got knocked out in a game, and we got 70,000 people cheering — that he got knocked out.
Boo him all you want. Boo me all you want. Throw me under the bus. Tell me I’m doing a bad job. Say I’ve got to protect him more … But if you’re one of those people who were out there cheering, or even smiled, when he got knocked out, I just wanna let you know — and I want everyone to know — that I think it’s sickening and disgusting … We got a lot of problems as a society if people think that that’s O.K.
“I have a lot of respect for that guy,” says Indiana University psychology professor Edward Hirt, an expert in fan behavior. “That is talking right to the point. Impressive.”
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Unfortunately, the Kansas City embarrassment is not an isolated incident. Most famously, Philadelphia Eagles fans cheered in 1999 when Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin lay on the turf, immobilized with a career-ending neck injury. Philly fans have earned a rep for boorish behavior; this spring, they cheered when Chicago Bulls big man Joakim Noah sprained an ankle in the Bulls-Sixers NBA playoff series. In a commentary for Yahoo Sports after the Kansas City incident, former Tennessee Titans running back Eddie George recalled that Titans fans applauded an injury to quarterback Steve McNair early in the 2000 season. Baltimore Ravens fans once took joy in the misery of quarterback Kyle Boller.
What’s going on here? “We are not personalizing these athletes,” says Hirt. “Their goal — winning — becomes our goal, and when they don’t accomplish it, we dispose of them. It’s weird. It’s not compassionate and not respectful.” Christian End, a psychology professor at Xavier University who also studies sports fans, notes that the lines of acceptable behavior already get redrawn at sporting events. In, say, the workplace, people don’t go around chanting “Bulls—!” when their bosses give them an annoying task. But at the stadium, the group subsumes your identity; you’re anonymous among 80,000 fans, so when the refs blow a call, cursing out loud seems O.K.
In this charged environment, fans search for cues from the group. So if a stadium section starts cheering an injury, you’re more likely to conform. “An action like cheering is much more likely to get your attention than someone sitting silently in his seat,” says End.
Given these dynamics, maybe fans deserve a little credit for not cheering injuries more often. Most of the time, they hold back. Still, human decency says these incidents should cease forever. “The hope is that the backlash to this kind of behavior,” says End, “prevents it from happening in other places.”
Are you confident that we won’t see this kind of thing again? Feel free to discuss in the comments.