"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."