While Major League Baseball purports an identity as America's pastime, there's no doubting the supremacy of the National Football League as the national sport of choice. The NFL's ascent to the top continues to create a summit of its own choosing despite ongoing concussion concerns and the lockout of its officials. In short, the NFL can do no wrong as ratings and dollars signal record numbers in 2012.
Within the world of the NFL, there's no doubting who carries the torch for each team's passionate fan base. The quarterback is not just the most important position on the field, as the old maxim goes. The quarterback, in modern terms, is also the face of the franchise -- the icon that must be an able spokesman, community leader, team icon and, of course, a dynamic passer.
Anyone who falls short of these expectations immediately adds another item to their job description: lightning rod. Such is life in the NFL for the signal caller, and the role comes as no surprise to anyone who dons the starting quarterback's helmet.
Yet this past weekend at Arrowhead Stadium, something snapped. A tipping point was reached where the energy and excitement of the fans watching the Baltimore Ravens visit the Kansas City Chiefs turned ugly -- and where those expectations suddenly became unrealistic. As Matt Cassel suffered an on-field concussion, the crowd started to cheer that their quarterback was going to be removed from the game.
Another popular saying in NFL circles is that the back-up quarterback is the team's most popular player. Brady Quinn became that man on Sunday, and Chiefs fans showed their support for the change. Except this was not a coaching decision by Romeo Crennel. This was not a substitute for poor performance. This was a stadium of fans cheering on the fact that a person had been physically injured -- an outpouring of public support for the head injury of another.
An immediate gladiatorial comparison comes to mind -- historical images from the Roman Empire with a coliseum thirsty for blood. On Sunday, Cassel went from simply being a lightning rod of fan frustration (which is acceptable) to being a sacrifice of sorts for the good of the game (which is unacceptable). It was, in a word, disgusting.
Eric Winston had the most vitriolic comments after the game, speaking from the heart about what he heard from the stands:
"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 been in some rough times on some rough teams, I've never been more embarrassed in my life to play football than in that moment right there."
Winston is correct. No matter what word you want to choose -- disgusting, sickening, embarrassing -- the scene was wrong. In fact, it was disturbing. It's an event that should make everyone check their level of zeal for the game to make certain that not a single one of us can or will participate to the degree that we lose our sense of humanity. Football is a game. The NFL is entertainment. It's only within those boundaries that we should be allowed to respond.
Unfortunately, this incident only arrives as the latest in a string of occurrences that show that fan zeal for their favorite team is out of control. When Bryan Stow was assaulted outside of a Giants-Dodgers game, our humanity has been lost. When Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray is pranked after a loss on a weekend he's dealing with news of his father being diagnosed with cancer, our humanity has been lost. Now with the cheers for Cassel's head injury, our humanity was lost again.
Football is not outside of us. It doesn't stand apart from us. Instead, every sport is an expression out of all of us. Sports are a representation of humanity. It is the very reason we come together to watch and celebrate the Olympics because it connects us all. In those magical moments from London this summer, we, as Americans, found ourselves rooting for athletes from other countries at many points. Why? Perhaps it is because we recognize that the events in the arena are somehow a part of us -- and that the stories that are unfolding there mirror our own.
The game of football can be electrifying. It can clearly also move us, as fans, past the proper boundaries of sports and entertainment into emotional, mental and physical states it should not. We are creatures capable of creating meaning, beauty and truth. Yet we are also capable of the opposite, of taking that which is good and remaking it into an extreme, perverted version of what it was intended to be.
Because sports are a part of us, because they are representative of us, fans must acknowledge the role that they play. The game only remains a game when fans are cognizant of that. Anything that moves beyond that is detestable.