The media has vilified Chiefs fans for cheering their own quarterback's injury. But that's not actually what happened.
Kansas City's football fans are not bloodthirsty idiots. The truth is that the fans at Arrowhead Stadium for Sunday's loss to Baltimore did not, in fact, cheer when their quarterback Matt Cassel got injured in the fourth quarter. That truth, however, didn't prevent nearly every blogger, columnist, radio talk-show host and ex-jock with suit on TV from spewing moral outrage on KC's fans, to the tune of what Chiefs offensive lineman Eric Winston said after the game.
Winston, in the locker room after another dispiriting loss, vented. He let loose a passionate, articulate denunciation of Arrowhead fans who he claimed cheered when the Chiefs' unloved signal-caller Cassel was hurt and knocked from the game.
When Cassel went down, Winston claimed that there were "70,000 people cheering."
The Sporting News called the display twisted and disturbing. SportsCenter analysts Ron Jaworski and Merril Hoge spent an entire segment before Monday Night Football competing to see who could express the most shock, horror, and contempt for KC fans. Both men also, like almost every other pundit who weighed in, declared that the incident at Arrowhead indicates a much deeper malaise in our culture and breakdown of social order—especially given that it took place in the supposedly wholesome heartland.
There's only one problem. Winston misunderstood what he heard from the seats. Fans at Arrowhead made noise three times during and after the play in question. All three came for perfectly ordinary, sportsmanlike reasons. Not one was because Cassel got hurt.
The first cheer came during the play itself. Cassel took the snap. He felt pressure, made a quick toss to Jamal Charles in the flat and then was absolutely crushed between two Baltimore defenders. Charles, meanwhile, caught the pass and scrambled for a much-needed first down. Cassel withered and crumpled. The fans roared, and it's obvious to the most casual observer that the noise is for Jamal's big gain, not the hit on Cassel.
The second cheer rose moments later, and came for the most popular man on any losing football team: the backup QB. In this case, that would Brady Quinn. He jogged on to the field to take Cassel's place. The fans cheered. That's all. You can hear the cheer during the network replay of the pass to Charles. Dan Fouts, the broadcaster, notes that the people are cheering for Quinn's entry.
But Winston, even after "clarifying" his comments with local media on Monday, seemed confused. Apparently not noticing Quinn running from the sidelines, he somehow got the notion that the fans were cheering because Matt Cassel couldn't get off the turf.
They simply weren't. Any confusion should have been erased by the third noise from the stands a few moments later. Cassel stood up. Unpopular or not, he got an enthusiastic version of the same applause and cheers of encouragement that all fans afford every seriously injured player as they leave the field.
Winston, though, either didn't notice or was already too mad to care. After enduring another tough loss, he vented in the locker room, and the national media went wild for a story about turpitude in Missouri. Winston's mistake can be forgiven. He made it for all the right reasons.
The media, though, can't be excused for its dazzling failures. From the lowliest blogger to the Emmy-wielding broadcast icons, the whole sports punditocracy seemed to take Winston's misunderstanding at face value. Coast to coast—but especially on the east one—commentators bitterly, viciously condemned KC fans without so much as bothering to make even the most cursory investigation. Like, say, ask anyone who was at the game itself what happened. They did it because it's easier to spread a fun lie than to seek the dull truth, and because preaching about the declining morals of fans makes sportswriters feel superior and important. In this particular case, though, the declining morals are their own.