Kansas City, Mo. There was a time when sports fans in Kansas City were considered among the best in sports, when Kauffman Stadium was the place to be during the sweltering summer months and tailgating at Arrowhead Stadium a rite of crisp autumn days.
Lately, the perception of Royals and Chiefs fans has taken a hit.
The latest and most volatile flashpoint occurred Sunday, when burly offensive tackle Eric Winston laid into the small percentage of Chiefs fans who cheered when embattled quarterback Matt Cassel sustained a concussion in the fourth quarter of a 9-6 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
During a post-game diatribe that quickly went viral, Winston called the cheering “sickening” and said he’d never been more embarrassed to play pro football. Winston has since clarified his statement to say not all Chiefs fans were cheering the injury, but he’s otherwise stood by his comments.
Words that have been dissected by people all over the country.
Former Chiefs quarterback Ron Jaworski, now an ESPN analyst, asked “Where’s the civility?” ‘‘Good Morning America” and “Inside Edition” hosts chimed in, Donny Deutsch on the “Today” show bemoaned a “thug culture” in society and Star Jones opined, “We cheer bad behavior now.”
Not exactly what people have come to expect of the heartland.
Right or wrong, Kansas City’s reputation for fans who are devoted to their downtrodden franchises has been replaced with one of callousness — in some quarters, at least — no better than those Cleveland Browns fans who cheered when QB Tim Couch got hurt in 2002, or those Oakland Raiders fans who got into fistfights in the stands during a game against San Diego in 1999, or those Philadelphia Eagles fans who booed Santa Claus way back in 1968.
“I think it’s a misperception, or a bad perception,” said Bob Fescoe of 610 Sports Radio in Kansas City. “That’s not Kansas City fans. They’re loyal, they’re dedicated, they’re hard-working people. ... That’s just not how we do it here in Kansas City.”
Indeed, the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index last year listed the city among the “happiest” metropolitan areas in the country. Its downhome charm and Midwestern sensibility are big reasons why people continue to flock to what’s been called the Paris of the Plains.
Winston said Monday he didn’t think his comments would gain such traction, but they’ve become the impetus for a discussion of what’s considered uncouth behavior in ballparks and stadiums.
The line of demarcation is blurry at best.
Royals fans earlier this summer mercilessly booed the Yankees’ Robinson Cano when, as captain of the American League for the Home Run Derby, he went back on his word to choose a Royals player to participate. Cano was clearly shaken by the non-stop booing, and the reigning champion failed to hit a single home run as he was eliminated from the competition.
Folks across the country eviscerated Royals fans for what they deemed boorish behavior, while those in Kansas City argue they were merely showing their passion for their own guy.
Just last week, they point out, they gave the Detroit Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera a standing ovation for becoming the first player in 45 years to achieve the Triple Crown.
The angst toward their own teams has been simmering for years.
The Royals were once a model small-market club, regularly contending for championships. But following the death of beloved owner Ewing M. Kauffman in 1993, and the purchase of the franchise by David Glass, a period of mediocrity — or worse — set in that continues to this day.
The Royals haven’t been back to the playoffs since winning the 1985 World Series, the longest drought in one of America’s four major professional sports.
The Chiefs once sold out Arrowhead Stadium every game, and owner Lamar Hunt’s folksy charm endeared him to fans. But even before his death in 2006, the franchise had fallen into hard times, and it’s continued under the leadership of his son, Clark Hunt, and general manager Scott Pioli.
The Chiefs are currently 1-4, and they haven’t won a playoff game since 1993, a longer drought than every NFL team but Cincinnati and Detroit.
“This town just wants a winner. We just want to be relevant,” said Eric Crandall, a fan from Independence, Mo., who’s been attending Chiefs games for more than two decades. “The coasts refer to us as ‘flyover country.’ This being the town of Truman, we want the buck to stop here.”
Dr. Don Forsyth, an expert in group behavior, leadership and moral judgment in the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at Richmond University, said he’s not surprised by the fan backlash.
“There’s a breaking point. That’s the key,” Forsyth said. “Fans think they’re part of the team, and that’s why they take wins and losses so seriously. Then when they see the administration or the leaders as the out-group, they’ll engage in some pretty negative behaviors.”
There are similarities in the two organizations besides win-loss records.
Both have owners who rarely speak publicly, giving them a perceived aloofness. Both franchises have been accused of being miserly, and both have made embarrassing public gaffes over the years.
In response to one angry fan, an anonymous Chiefs employee tweeted on the team’s official account a few weeks ago, “Would help if you had your facts straight. Your choice to be a fan. cc get a clue.” The tweet was taken down and an apology issued by the Chiefs moments later.
“You would think a team doing this poorly would try and generate some sort of goodwill with the fans,” Crandall said.
The anger felt by fans was on display Sunday long before Cassel got hurt.
On one of the access roads leading into the stadium, tailgaters hung a bed sheet carrying a painted message calling the Chiefs an “embarrassment.” Fans cobbled together enough money to hire an airplane to tow a banner over the stadium asking for Cassel to be benched and Pioli to be fired.
Cassel has been the source of frustration for years. He was booed lustily during a celebrity softball game this summer, and fans have been calling for his job since the start of the season.
That’s part of the reason some cheered when he was hurt.
In their eyes, it was the only way the Chiefs would give backup Brady Quinn a chance.
“You never, ever, as a true fan want to see a player get injured,” said Ty Rowton, also known as Chiefs super-fan X-Factor, who attended his 234th straight game at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday.
“I didn’t hear any fans cheering that Cassel was hurt,” Rowton said. “When he got up and started walking from the field, the fans gave a very loud cheer, thanking him for sacrificing himself.
“There was an even bigger cheer when it was announced that Brady Quinn was going in.”