Sports | Us and them

The growing divide between fans and athletes

Matt Cassel is the quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs. This season, he hasn’t been particularly good, but neither has the rest of the team: the Chiefs have begun with a 1-4 record. On October 7, Cassel was playing poorly, but his team was keeping the score close against the heavily favoured Baltimore Ravens – the score stood 9-6 in Baltimore’s favour during the fouth quarter. Cassel dropped back and was hit hard, apparently suffering a concussion. The fans cheered as Cassel was taken off the field and replaced. And this game wasn’t even in Baltimore, even if that could excuse it; it was in Kansas City. Cassel’s own fans were cheering his injury.

Chiefs guard Eric Winston sounded off on the incident after the game, telling the press gathered around his locker that “we are athletes, we are not gladiators… This isn’t the Roman Coliseum…I believe [fans] can boo, they can cheer, they can do whatever they want. But when you cheer somebody getting knocked out, I don’t care who it is…it’s sickening. …If [Cassel]’s not the best quarterback, he’s not the best quarterback, and that’s okay. But he’s a person. And he got knocked out in a game, and we got 70,000 people cheering.”

While this behaviour was, frankly, disgusting, it didn’t really surprise me. And maybe that’s more troubling. The idea of 70,000 people cheering because a person has been so badly injured that they need to leave the game – that idea isn’t shocking or foreign to me, or to many others who have spent a lot of time watching sports.

The slow dehumanization of players is readily apparent to anyone looking for it; it is a gradual move from we, the athletes and the fans – think baseball stars stopping to play stickball with kids on their way to the game, or star quarterbacks, in the offseason, working at their other, blue-collar job (no matter how unrealistic this image is, the perception of it exists) – to us and them. On one side are the fans, whose hard-earned money goes toward watching each game; on the other are the people who play that game, who are here for our entertainment, who are paid millions of dollars.

The growth of the separation between fan and athlete is linked to the evolution of sports into entertainment. With the rise of national sports networks, sports gambling, and the proliferation of fantasy sports, fans now watch more games – especially for teams outside their local area – and have a monetary or emotional stake in more games.

Meanwhile, the fans’ TV screens separate them from the athletes, who become just like the actors on TV shows – people playing a part for the viewer’s enjoyment. It all builds into a narrative of entertainment, one which obscures the mess of humanity that sports truly are. The players don’t always perform perfectly; there is no linear plot. Viewed through the lens of entertainment, though, the athletes who don’t provide the desired outcome are to be derided and replaced. Fans find themselves cheering for an injury because it makes the game better for them, no matter the humanity of the athletes involved.

The media create tropes for players – the star quarterback, the shaky goalie, the clutch three-point shooter – that their coverage continually shoehorns players into, one after the other. Players begin to become interchangeable, and, from there, we stop thinking of them as humans and begin to think of them as characters created for our own entertainment. When a player is ‘past their prime’ – that is, not living up to their expectations anymore – the fan is no longer interested in them, and they are casually discarded. Similarly, if a player is performing poorly, why not cheer when they have to exit stage left, injury or not?

Injuries, too, have become part of the entertainment narrative – how one team reacts to a star player going down, or how one player is able to fill in for someone else, is key to the narrative. The parlance of injuries has become so commonplace that the language surrounding injury basically means nothing, and some fans treat only the gravest injuries as truly important.

Apropos, fans have been criticizing injured players for years. Jay Cutler, the Chicago Bears’ quarterback, was derided by many Bears fans after a torn medial collateral ligament (MCL), one of the major ligaments in the knee, forced him out of the 2010 National Football Conference championship game. Some Chicago fans and media members have questioned Cutler’s “toughness” ever since then, despite the extreme difficulty one would have playing quarterback without full knee function. National Hockey League star Sidney Crosby has also faced criticism from segments of his fan base as he missed many games as a result of the lingering effects of multiple concussions.

While some may argue that the majority of fans are more reasonable than these examples, one needs only to go to the comment section on any major sports website, or listen to the conversation in a stadium, to hear the din of what is at least a growing minority of sports fans. They spout the idea that athletes are indebted to provide a service to fans, that they are interchangeable pieces in a narrative that should provide maximum entertainment to fans, no matter what. Forget them as humans; what the fans want is selfish joy. So they clap as their quarterback is taken off, injured, as the hope of a new player that will bring better results strides onto the field. Listen to the crowd and you’ll hear what they want: characters and narrative, not humans.

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