By In Stuff

When the Cheering Stops

The Insider is adamant. The Insider is one of those people who spots trends, watches the shifts in society, helps people navigate through the wildly shifting times. This is why I call him the Insider. And he is to the point. “Everyone,” he says, “is missing the REAL Kansas City fans story.”

“The real story?” I ask.

“Yeah,” he says. He explains that everyone is making the story about the quality of Kansas City Chiefs fans or the struggles of the Chiefs themselves or the rights of loyal fans to cheer savagely or the wisdom of players lashing out.

“None of those things are the story” he says.

“So what is the story?”

“The story,” he says, “is that people are going to stop going to NFL games. It’s happening already.”

* * *

I lived in Kansas City for 15 years, I love Kansas City, and because of this many people have asked for my take on the scene last Sunday, when X number of people at Arrowhead Stadium cheered quarterback Matt Cassel’s concussion, and when offensive lineman Eric Winston offered a passionate rebuke for those people.

I have not really had a take because I think two things:

1. The vast, vast majority of people understand the ugliness of fans cheering when a quarterback gets knocked unconscious, no matter how poorly he might have been playing. This seems to me one of those “Education is good, crime is bad” topics where the only thing you can really do in an argument is scream louder than other guy.

2. Too many people have been spinning this whole thing to prove the point they wanted to make in the first place.

The second part of this is especially grating. For instance, people who generally dislike where football and society are going have used this story as one of those “See, this is how bad it has gotten out there” moments. This has led to so many of the irritating “Who would have ever thought something like this could have happened in KANSAS CITY …” clichés, as if every woman who lives in Kansas City is Dorothy and every man is Clark Kent.

Well, these city-wide clichés are everywhere — boorish Philadelphians, cynical New Yorkers, hearty Chicagoans, late-arriving Los Angelinos, apathetic Arizonans, fatalistic New Englanders, menacing Oaklanders, the partying people of South Beach. And, of course, those guileless Kansas Citians. It’s all ridiculous, every major sports team’s fan base has large segments who match up to every one of these descriptions. One NFL veteran told me this week, “I’ve been in all of the so-called toughest cities in this league, and let me tell you, people in Kansas City will boo you as loud and swear at you as loud as any of them.”

Well, of course. There might be subtle differences in stadiums as you go around the country — differences in accents, differences in style, differences in how weather-beaten they are — but in the end fans are fans, and the range of fan emotions is as wide in Atlanta as it is in Pittsburgh as it is in Dallas as it is in …

On the other side of this, some people come into the story distrusting the media, and so they say the whole Cassel-cheering thing was overblown. They might stop there, but many keep going, they say that it was only a few fans cheering his demise, maybe a handful of drunks, it was an entirely media driven thing, it wasn’t a big deal, you couldn’t even hear it on the video. Well, I talked to someone this week who was in the middle of it all. “It was loud,” he said. “I mean, of course, it wasn’t everybody. It might not have even been half. But it wasn’t just a few either. It was loud. And it was obvious what they were cheering.”

Some people who think players are overpaid and tickets are too expensive have used this as a chance to lash out at Eric Winston for, what I believe, is as thoughtful a statement as a player has ever given on the hard emotions of playing professional football. For the record, I’m including the entire statement here:

Before we start I have something to say. … We are athletes, OK? We are athletes. We’re not gladiators. This isn’t the Roman Coliseum. People pay their money, hard-earned money, to come in here, and I believe they can boo, they can cheer, they can do whatever they want. … Hey, we’re lucky to play this game. A game. … People .. it’s hard economic times, and they still pay the money to to do this. OK? 

But when somebody gets hurt, there are long-lasting ramifications to the game we play. Long-lasting ramifications to the game we play. All right? I’ve already kind of come to the understanding I probably won’t live as long because I play this game, and that’s OK, that’s the choice I’ve made. That’s the choice all of us have made. 

But when you cheer, 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. 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 then at that moment right there. And I get emotional about it because these guys, they work their butts off. Matt Cassel hasn’t done anything to you people. He hasn’t done anything to you people. Hasn’t done anything to the media writers that kill him. Hasn’t done anything wrong to the people that come out here and cheer him. 

Hey, if he’s not the best quarterback out there, he’s not the best quarterback. And that’s OK. 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 gotta protect him more, do whatever you want, say whatever you want. But if you’re one of those people, one of those people out there cheering, or even smiled, when he got knocked out, I just want to let you know, and I want everyone to know that I think it’s sickening and disgusting. 

We are not gladiators, and this is not the Roman Coliseum. This is a game, and I’ll sit here and answer all your questions the next 30 minutes if you want to ask them, and I’ll take all the responsibility you want me to take because I deserve it and if you want to blame, blame me. Don’t blame the guy, don’t cheer for a guy who’s done everything in his power to play as good as he can for the fans. It’s sickening. And I was embarrassed. And I want every single one of you people to put that on your station, to put that in your newspapers. Because I want every fan to know that. 

This is a game that’s going to cost us a lot down the road, and that’s OK. We picked it. We deserve it. I don’t want your pity. But we’ve got a lot of problems as a society if people think that’s OK.

Some people have picked on the fact that Winston said 70,000 people cheered (it wasn’t nearly that many, as Winston has since acknowledged) to tear apart these words from the heart. There’s so much of that now; rushing past the obvious meaning to single out a perhaps poorly constructed sentence or word. To read that statement — where Winston reveals the pain of playing football, acknowledges the loyalty of fans and insists they can (and even should) boo whoever they want to boo, and asks that lines of humanity be drawn — and try to make him sound like a spoiled athlete who doesn’t appreciate the fans’ role is willfully disregarding what’s real and what’s true.

Some people hate the lack of success the Kansas City Chiefs have had. The Chiefs have not played in a Super Bowl in more than 40 years, have not won a playoff game in almost 20. GM Scott Pioli took over the team almost four years ago with a lot of buzz, and the team has not broken through. The person in the middle of it all told me he saw and heard people screaming the vilest obscenities at Pioli as he walked on the field with his 9-year-old daughter — this sort of thing is so common now that it barely even merits mention. So you hear these people blame the Chiefs themselves for creating this divisive atmosphere, where fans feel like the only way they can be heard is to cheer when their quarterback gets clocked.

In other words, most people seemed to come out of this incident with exactly the same view they had coming in … only amplified.

“Don’t miss the story,” the Insider tells me. “This isn’t about Kansas City fans. The huge majority of Chiefs fans weren’t at the game, and would never go to the game. This isn’t about how many people cheered or didn’t cheer. This isn’t about the coarsening of society. This is about a big problem the NFL has now.”

* * *

“I used to go to football games all the time,” the Insider tells me. He talks about having season tickets for years. He would bring his wife, they might bring along friends. Sometimes he would entertain clients at the games.

“You used to see families everywhere,” he said. Well, this is something many people say.
He says he’s not sure when he fully noticed a change in his own life. But he started to notice a little resistance from his wife on Sunday mornings. At first, it wasn’t much, a joking comment, “Oh, maybe we could stay home this week.” After a short while, the joking became a bit more insistent. After another short while, his wife would come up with reasons why she couldn’t go to the games.

There had always been fights in the stands. But he noticed that they were getting more frequent and closer to his section. The Insider is no shrinking violet, his job has taken him into some of the most heated arguments in America. Still, he began to feel the fury all around him, began to be embarrassed by the language, began to think that threats people shouted were not quite as harmless and jocular as he had always believed. He would remember thinking that he would never bring a child to an NFL game; that was the first sign that things were changing for him. Then, he started to feel bad about bringing his wife to games. Then, he started thinking about staying home himself.

And all the while, a modern miracle was happening at home: high-definition television. Holy cow, the games were so clear. You could see everything. The replays were almost magical. At home, the beers didn’t cost 11 bucks and parking was free. He could watch the game, really watch it, and maybe keep up with his fantasy team too. Sure, there was some atmosphere he might miss, some energy, but he found that when he watched games at home he didn’t feel beaten down and depressed and discouraged by the constant barrage of rage that he felt at games. And at some point during all of it, he decided: He was never going to another NFL game again. He never has. He says he never will.

“I know a lot of people who decided that at the same time,” he says. “People tell me, ‘It just got too depressing.’ Or they had kids and would never think of taking them to a game. Or it got too expensive for them. Or they just got sick of the experience. Going to an NFL game, for a lot of us, is a lousy experience.”

Maybe your experience is similar to his. Maybe it isn’t. NFL attendance does not seem to be suffering. The game, for all the negatives the last couple of years, is as popular as ever. Here’s what the Insider asks: If watching an NFL game at home is a vastly better viewing experience, why would people spend all that money to go to the games? His answer: “Many people now go to games to be heard,” he says. “They want their complaints registered. They want their cheers acknowledged.”

And, he says, that’s what is really behind the Kansas City story. Yes, he says, the stadium was filled. But was it filled with that wide-ranging cross-section of Kansas City Chiefs fans? He argues no. He argues that families have been cut out, people struggling financially have been cut out, people who just want to have fun have been cut out. He argues that as fewer and fewer of those people come to games, there will be louder and louder cheers when the quarterback gets hurt, which will just continue the cycle, which will just feed on itself.

“Going to a pro football game isn’t fun anymore,” he says. “I don’t think it’s even supposed to be fun. If you want fun, you invite over some friends, get some beers, some chips, and you watch the game on TV. You spend ticket money on getting a bigger TV.

“What did the guy say? He compared football to the Roman Coliseum? That’s probably closer to the truth than he even knows. The NFL thinks their big problem is head injuries. That’s just one one of their problems. I think their bigger problem is that the games stopped being fun.”

Of course, the Insider could just be another person trying to make this story fit what he thought going in. I suggest this to him, and he smiles. “If they don’t do something, stadiums all around the NFL will be half empty within five to 10 years,” he says. “You come back and tell me if I’m wrong.”

35 Responses to When the Cheering Stops

  1. Hoopstar says:

    Sounds like you’ve been talking to Kevin Keitzman.

  2. Matty says:

    After not going to an NFL game for about 6 years, I went to the Chiefs-Broncos game at Arrowhead last year. I swore I’d never go to another. The interminable TV timeouts destroy the atmosphere in the stadium, especially when they go from commercial to kickoff to commercial. The NFL does not care about its fans. The in stadium experience has been eroding for years.

  3. Jeff Harris says:

    Not only do I no longer have a deire to see an NFL game live (cost, inconvenience, atmosphere), I barely watch the games on TV anymore. It’s a combination of the violent hits, excessive TV timeouts (commercial, kickoff, commercial), longer play clocks which result in fewer plays and possessions, dumb replay rules, dumb OT structure, etc.

    I watch college football on Saturdays and my Sunday’s are gloriously free.

    P.S. Move the dang Super Bowl to Saturday’s.

  4. That would be the most articulate Kevin Keitzman has ever been then. It’s either not Keitzman or Joe cleaned up his comments considerably.

  5. Reagan says:

    Eric Winston is right.

    Thanks for printing his statement in full. One of the frequent losses in a sound bite culture is the loss of a detailed argument.

    To the fan, injuries are just a player substitution, a number of weeks until the injured player returns, and maybe a decreased performance level when he does. The fan doesn’t consider the pain the player feels from the injury. Most fans dehumanize the player. The player only exists to help the fan achieve his goal – winning. This is why the physical problems of retired players are never high on the list of the fan concerns. Retired players, healthy or unhealthy, do nothing to entertain the fan or help the fan achieve his goal. I hate the hard heartedness that exists. It’s always existed, but every now and then you see it a little more clearly.

    As to why the cheers were not audible on the TV broadcast, unless the fans are insanely loud, you frequently do not hear them. If it’s an unpleasant uproar, the networks mute the fan mikes. I’ve been at a game where a fairly loud, but not overwhelming, BS chant started. Later, when I watched a tape of the game, I couldn’t detect a trace of it.

  6. Tim says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Scott says:

    I’m a long time Saints fan, and honestly I haven’t noticed much change in the makeup of the crowd or behavior at games. New Orleans is a different town though, the fans are extremely checked in on the team, and in a very social town a Saints game is a major social event for the entire city, so this may not be a good example.

  8. Kyle says:

    English soccer developed into a vile sport with actual gangs supporting the teams and fighting each other. Those stadiums still fill up. If you lose the families you will always have the hooligans, which I believe is what this “insider” was trying to say. There are some major differences but I think that this trend of rowdy fans changing the game experience will continue. I think that they will be die hard enough to spend all their money coming to the games no matter what. I also think that there are plenty of fans that feel the need “to be heard.” Enough that the stadiums in the more passionate markets will stay filled.

    • Claire says:

      And then English soccer turned against the hooligans, and the game became much more popular: the days are long gone when fans could turn up on the day and be able to buy a ticket for the Premier League. CCTV helped, of course, but you need the will to enforce it. Not just for physical violence, but for verbal abuse. Partly the change in England occurred because it was the right thing to do, but partly it was because the owners worked out that a family would spend far more money than a hooligan.

    • Mark Coale says:

      There was a perfect storm of things to turn top flight English futbol around. Hillsborough + the Creation of the Premier League + Sky $$$ + the end of terracing and new stadiums etc.

      If you listen to the complaints of the “average” futbol fan in England, it’s about how corporate and soulless and expensive the game has become at the top level.

      Ironically, I have embraced futbol over football for many of the seasons mentioned above: the game is over in 2 hours with minimal commercials and watching in HD is great.

      The last football game I went to was at the new Texas Stadium, as a part of a bucket list thing with a friend. WHile an amazing spectacle, was it the worth the economical outlay? PRobably not.

  9. Ditto here. When I graduated from college, my first major expense was season tickets to the Chiefs. This was Marty’s first year. I took my fiance (then wife) to every game, and we had a bunch of people who we tailgated with every Sunday. It was an all day affair, and we loved it. But then kids came, the ticket prices shot up, and the stadium became filled with angry drunks. I quit going to games about 5 years ago, and then dropped my tickets a year or two after that.

    I’ve never missed it, and I most likely will never step foot in an NFL game again.

    Maybe the younger generation will go, but I won’t.

  10. Schlom says:

    Is it for certain that people were cheering because Cassel was injured, and not because Quinn was either warming up or coming in?

  11. Justsayin says:

    Between the vociferous mean spirited booing of Cano and the mistreatment of his family at the home run derby and now the booing of Cassel, my image of KC fans has started to errode. Perhaps this behaviour could happen most anywhere; I have witnessed it first hand, having grown up in Oakland. But the KC fans appear to be taking it to a higher, more dangerous level. Here’s hoping I’m wrong….

    • Chris says:

      Do you want to outlaw booing at sporting events? I’ll concede that the treatment of Cano’s family was out of line, but the booing of Cano or Cassel for his poor play is part of the game if you ask me. Cheering Cassel’s injury is so much more than the man himself. Professional sports are a big business and it is no longer fun to be a fan, especially in Kansas City. Neither franchise seems to care all that much about having a winning team. Both serve the bottom line first.

    • Justsayin says:

      Chris…have to agree with you on all of your points. Booing is part of sports; always will be. When it is over the top or for mean or wrong reasons is when I have a problem with it. The KC fans have caused me to wince twice this year. I was embarrased for them, no matter what the cause (frustration of losing, being drunk, whatever). I was in the stands in Oakland in 1980 and witnessed the infamous cheering when Dan Pastorini lay on the field with a broken leg. Granted, Pastorini had been traded for the beloved Ken Stabler, which was a very unpopular trade for Raider fans. But I was ashamed of the fans’ reaction. The Cassel moment reminded me of the game in 1980. That moment now seems tame compared to the antics of the Black Hole hooligans. Am I old and set in my ways? Perhaps; but I long for a return to those days when personal accountability was a trait admired by most everyone. It takes more to make me wince nowadays, but when it happens it isn’t fun…

  12. Brian says:

    Whenever I re-read or hear what Eric Winston said, I’m still amazed that he ad-libbed that. If you pay attention to each sentence as he speaks them, it’s like he’s fully aware the entire time that people will focus on each sentence individually rather than his overall message. It’s just amazing that he was able to speak that message so eloquently in that setting. Most people can type things out and proofread them and re-write them based on what they think the devil’s advocate responses will be. But he didn’t have that luxury, and yet he still had a retort right back as if he was prepared for it. Amazing really.

    • Brian says:

      I’d like to add that it’s quite sad how individual words or sentences within a broader point are often what’s focused on the most; Joe sorta touched on that point in this post. Because so much of what is consumed is based on search engine optimization, it’s like the news media doesn’t care if headlines are misleading, and it’s almost like things are taken out of context on purpose. Not to get all “get off my lawn” on you, but I really do think we were better off before every a-hole with access to an ISP had multiple forums for share their busted opinions.

    • Brian says:

      Ha, like mine above 🙂

  13. prophet says:

    I’ve been to a couple of NFL games, but it’s not nearly as much fun as a baseball game. It’s a lot more expensive, my wife wouldn’t like it and I’m very ambivalent about passing on my love of football to my son (the inherent violence and health risks resonate much stronger with me now that I’m a parent versus an “indestructible” youth).

    I will likely be taking them to baseball games – possibly a basketball game, that could be fun – but probably not a hockey game (the acceptance of extralegal violence[1] turned me off even as a kid), and definitely not a football game. It’s not the direction I want to go any more, and definitely not the direction I’ll steer my son.

    1. You see more fights in hockey games than football games, even though collisions are legal in both sports. The fact that it was an accepted part of a hockey game made me figure if that’s what I wanted, I could watch boxing instead.

  14. Tim says:

    OK fellas, you caught me. 😉 I am definitely silly, and most assuredly am prone to the occasional radicalized rant, but let’s put my personal shortcomings aside, as I am forced to do every day.

    There are good reasons for a more normal person than me to think twice about supporting the Chiefs. Kent Babb’s January 2012 article in the KC Star is a good place to start:
    You don’t need a tin-foil hat in order to feel uneasy about cheering for the organization he describes.

  15. I am 35 and spent my childhood going to Giants and Jets game with my dad. I have no plans on taking my son to many, if any, nfl games. The cost, the tv timeouts, the HD tv in my living room, have all ruined the live exp for me. I much prefer live baseball, soccer, nba, and hockey. Its a much better fan exp.

  16. adam says:

    I vaguely remember a Bill James article about how baseball had a similar problem in the 70’s and early 80’s, and really cleaned things up with subtle anti-drinking messages, limiting beer sales to 2 per person, stopping after 7th inning, etc.

    Seems like it would be harder to do with the NFL. Plus, baseball wasn’t competing with HD at the time.

  17. I remember Chris Perez getting booed on opening day this year in Cleveland. Perhaps it isn’t just football.

  18. Chris Smith says:

    I’ve only been to 1 regular season NFL game and I won’t go back. Crappy end zone seats, cold weather, and jerks everywhere, for $70 a ticket. I took my mom (a lifelong Redskins fan) to see the ‘Skins when they were in Cincinnati. Yeah, $70 for a ticket to a Bengals game at a drab, grey Paul Brown Stadium, in bad weather, to be surrounded by idiots. Never again.

  19. I was invited to a Raider game a few years ago, i was curious to see if it’s as bad as people made it out to be. I couldn’t believe people actually paid to take part in that debauchery ($100 for the upper deck on Mt. Davis). I missed a whole quarter in line for a beer, which of course closed as i got to the front because they stop serving at the start of the 4th qtr. (yah like that’s going to make a difference when everyone is trashed from drinking all day)
    Walking around the concourse i got a slim view of SF and then it hit me, the people i was with weren’t going to visit SF! It would only take another hour or so but i was sure they would simply drive home right after the game (and sure enough we did) instead of at least passing over the GG bridge or something (no big deal i’ve been to SF before) jeez!
    I should strolled on over there for 3 hours and pretended i moved down to better seats.
    Fact of the matter is NFL games have little action when you’re actually there and as far as atmosphere, with a decent 5.1 system at home on a decent sized HDTV you have a much better atmosphere and experience. Maybe i’ll go to a game when we finally get a team to check it out, but i never missed Dodger Stadium as much as i did that day at the Mausoleum.

  20. Cody says:

    You could change out the main characters’ names in this story and it would describe our political system and government aptly. The fringes of society have pushed good, decent folks to the side and ruined something our nation should be proud of. Hopefully those on charge will see the harm that has been done, and make a push to get respectable people back in the fold.

  21. Dinky says:

    Growing up in LA, I regularly attended all the major teams: Dodgers, Rams, Lakers, even Kings. My daughter came along and things had changed, Raiders for Rams, and the Fabulous Forum was no longer in a very fabulous neighborhood. I still took her to a few Dodger games. One day my mom got some Raider tickets and passed them along, and I thought I’d take her. But the closer we got to the Coliseum, the less I liked the idea. Finally, I asked her, “Would you rather go to the beach?” “Yeah!” That was the end of her attending professional sports. I’m sorry I didn’t instill the love of sports more strongly in her, but not sorry that I put her real wants ahead of her merely willing to do something to spend time with me. And Santa Monica was fun….

  22. Abe Clark says:

    Joe: This morning NPR had an interesting commentary to the effect that a long time fan (did they call him Fireman Joe?) who for years led chants for the team has now decided to stop attending games because the crowds have grown so intensely negative.

  23. Zach Rose says:

    Amazing how simple it can be to communicate with people and have them understand a certain topic, you made my day.

    CCTV installation in Dallas

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