KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Something unthinkable has happened in Kansas City, something far more significant and sad than the fact the Chiefs are an utterly awful 1-4 football team.
One of the binding characteristics of this city has been a special connection between its football team and its fans. I’ve lived here for six years, and during that time I’ve been struck by the special rhythm that existed between them. Encoded there, despite too few wins, had been mutual respect, love, need and joy.
Those things are gone.
Under this owner, under this general manager, under this head coach and, yes, under this now-injured quarterback, those things have been wiped away. In their place have sprung resentment, anger, insecurity, and what looks a lot like hatred.
What on earth has happened to the best team-fan relationship in America?
On Sunday, overshadowing a 9-6 loss to the Baltimore Ravens — overshadowing Matt Cassel’s four turnovers, the Chiefs bumbling ineptitude, their coaching staff’s glaring incompetence and even the Ravens wobbly yet winning ways — were two things once unimaginable at Arrowhead Stadium.
1. Thousands of die-hard Chiefs fans cheering a head injury inflicted on one of its own players, Matt Cassel, as he lay prostrate on the ground.
2. A Kansas City Chief openly and utterly tearing into that fan base with contempt, rage, condescension and self-righteousness — saying he found their conduct “sickening” and “disgusting.”
In a depleted locker room after the game, certain he had most everyone’s attention, Chiefs offensive lineman Eric Winston shouted loud enough to be heard: “If this doesn’t run on your thing this is the last time you will ever hear me talk to you!”
Already, as he began by saying he and his teammates are athletes and not gladiators, his rage was enormous. His voice shook with it. His body shook with it. This was a whole new Chiefs era, in raw display, made clear by his contempt.
“This isn’t the Roman Coliseum,” Winston said. “People pay their hard-earned money to come in here, and I believe they can boo, they can cheer, they can do whatever they want. I believe that. We are lucky to play this game. People come in here, it’s hard economic times, and they still pay the money to do this. But when somebody gets hurt — there are long-lasting ramifications to the game we play. Long-lasting ramifications.
“I’ve already kind of come to the understanding that I probably won’t live as long because I play this game,” he said. “And that’s OK, that’s the choice I’ve made. That’s a choice all of us have made. But when you cheer — when you cheer someone 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. That 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 than in that moment right there.”
There was more, a lot more, and it boiled down to this: Winston was embarrassed by Chiefs fans. He was sickened by them. He wanted no part of them just as virulently as they seem to want no part of him and his teammates.
“He’s a person and he got knocked out in a game and we got 70,000 people cheering that he got knocked out?” he said. “… if you’re one of those people — one of those people that were out there cheering or even smiled – when he got knocked out I just want you to know, and I want everyone to know, that I think it’s sickening and disgusting.”
The fans had their own moment of rage. And though they were wrong to let the bad feelings emerge the way they did, their dark moment spoke unquestionably of the schism between them and their team. They stood and cheered, maybe not 70,000 of them but a whole lot, as Cassel lay on his back on the field in the fourth quarter.
This isn’t New York City or Philly. This is flyover country. This is Kansas City, a place with a mix of Midwestern and Southern, a place where that kind of behavior usually gets mocked, not practiced. A place that usually cites itself as proof that flyover country has its advantages. A place that believes it does not practice the same burning indignities believed to be brimming in bigger, “better” places. This is home, for me, too, and it hurt to watch.
What a jarring change. What a sign of just how wide the gulf has grown under the stewardship of co-owner, CEO and chairman Clark Hunt and his hand-picked general manager, Scott Pioli, between a once-beloved team and its once-celebrated fans
How to pass out the blame? Is it, in part, because Clark Hunt seems as distant from this team as his dad seemed connected to it? Because where Lamar walked Arrowhead with a folksy connectedness and everyman-look, Clark travels with a personal assistant who seems to be trying too hard to play a character from the movie Wall Street? Because Pioli’s ego — the one that seems to have kept his $55-million quarterback in the driver’s seat even as he drove it toward this divide — is as bad for reaching fans as it has been at winning football games? Because two decades is too long for anyone to wait for a playoff win? Because we take sports much, much too seriously? Because sports, as much as anything, becomes one of our primary means of escapes in tough times and an unhealthy fixation when historically-difficult economic times descend?
Yes. Some of all of those things, I’d say.
It doesn’t help that the Ravens and Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco were so bad they were begging to lose. And it doesn’t help that one of Cassel’s 14 turnovers on the season — meaning he had more than any other NFL team when he left the game — happened on the Ravens 1-yard line.
But none of that putrid play — nor any blame for it that exists with Clark Hunt as an owner, Pioli as a general manager, Romeo Crennel as a coach or the rest of the Chiefs players — excuses human beings cheering a head injury to another human being. Let alone when it’s a hometown QB laid out cold. Let alone now that we are beginning to grasp how dangerous such injuries are for players, now and for the rest of their lives.
But this is what once-great relationships look like when the affection has soured, and curdled, and turned to some unrecognizable form of loss and hatred and regret: A space filled with bad decisions, with angry rhetoric, with moments, later, you cannot understand when you think back on what you’ve done. And with the inevitable feeling in those even rarer moments of self-candor that much of your rage comes not because things are bad, or that they were never good, but because something beautiful never will be again.
Is that what we see in Winston’s rant, the fans’ bloodlust for one of their own and the unlikability and underperformance of the key people who have pushed us to this point? Have we seen an irrevocable change to the special bond between the Kansas City Chiefs and Kansas City?
I don’t know.
But right now, today, it is clear that the best sports fans in America have become people they would not recognize — vicious and sickening and called as much by at least one player who can no longer disguise his own contempt for them.
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.