Our man in the US - Week 7

This was not a dull week of NFL games. Between New England’s comeback win over the Saints, Kansas City’s 10 sacks of Terrelle Pryor and the St Louis Rams’ improbable 38-13 win in Houston, the action was perfectly compelling. So it was striking to find that one of the top stories on the league’s website on Monday morning should relate not to events on the field, but instead the behaviour of spectators in the stands.

“An embarrassing day for NFL fans” ran the article’s headline. Its author, NFL.com’s Around The League editor Gregg Rosenthal, acknowledged his surprising choice of topic in the opening paragraphs. “The hardest decision every Monday morning is deciding what story to write,” he said. “There are countless options from gameday to choose from. This is the first time I've ever felt that fans were a huge part of the story from the previous Sunday.” 

He was not the only one to think so. Just about every national media outlet picked up on the story of Texans fans cheering after their starting quarterback, Matt Schaub, went down injured, while the San Francisco 49ers’ own CEO, Jed York, posted a message on Twitter condemning his team’s supporters for starting a Wave at Candlestick Park while Arizona’s Calais Campbell was being manoeuvred onto a stretcher.

This is hardly the first time such things have occurred. Chiefs fans were lauded this weekend for setting a new world record for the loudest roar ever recorded at a sport stadium – an incredible 137.5 decibels – and yet it is barely 12 months since that same Arrowhead crowd was getting lambasted for cheering after their own starting quarterback, Matt Cassel, was forced out of a game by concussion.

You can go back a lot further than that. As long ago as 1980, Raiders fans earned a bad rap by applauding after their quarterback, Dan Pastorini, broke his leg while playing against Kansas City. Those supporters wanted to see the offense turned over to the backup Jim Plunkett, who duly came in and threw five interceptions in Oakland’s 31-17 defeat. Despite such inauspicious beginnings, he would end the season by leading them to victory at Super Bowl XV.

That outcome, of course, does not justify the celebration of a serious injury to another human being. Texans linebacker Brian Cushing described the cheers from Houston fans this weekend as “barbaric”, while other team-mates used terms a lot stronger than that. You would have been hard-pressed to find any fan, player, or analyst who would publically disagree with such sentiments.

But if that is the case, then why does such behaviour persist? The easy answer, touted by many observers in the US media this week, is ‘alcohol'. As Mark Purdy put it in the San Jose Mercury News: “The customer is always right. Except when the customer has been tailgating for three hours followed by regular visits to stadium beer stands. Then the customer is frequently stupid.”

In reality, though, intoxication is only one part of the picture. There is no way of quantifying what percentage of the cheering fans had over-indulged, but it is a safe bet that it was not all of them.

And even if it were, could the same be said for the many Twitter users whose abusive posts led Schaub to abandon the platform just a few weeks ago? A number of players have complained this season about the levels of direct personal abuse they receive on social media from disgruntled Fantasy Football players.

Purdy himself presented a more nuanced take later in the same piece. “The NFL has become the most successful sports league in North America with a marketing strategy that treats the game as entertainment as much as anything else,” he wrote. “The smashing highlights, the emphasis on personalities as superheroes, the fantasy-league catering ... it explains why NBC's "Football Night in America" Sunday broadcasts often post the week's highest ratings of any programming.

“However, along the way, that strategy might have given too many customers the idea that they are indeed watching entertainers (who can be snarkily insulted on tweets) or superheroes (with video-game powers and cartoonish attributes) rather than real human beings. Those of us who see players limp in and out of training rooms every week, ice bags covering various limbs, can attest otherwise.”

If that analysis is correct, then the issue becomes a tricky one to resolve. The NFL has sought to make its stadiums more family friendly in recent years, introducing a Fan Code of Conduct in 2008 which gave teams a clearer set of definitions on what constituted unacceptable behaviour. Any spectator found guilty of breaching its terms could be ejected from the stadium and potentially have future tickets revoked as well.

But while the code covered such transgressions as “foul or abusive language”, and “verbal or physical harassment of opposing team fans”, it made no mention of deriding an injured player. Even if it had, the law would be unenforceable. It would have taken many thousands of stewards to identify and remove all of those who cheered Schaub’s misfortune on Sunday.

Nor perhaps, would such a rule be justified. For while such behaviour might be distasteful or even “despicable”, as ESPN’s Michael Wilbon termed it on Monday’s edition of Pardon the Interruption, it is also an honest expression of how those fans were feeling at the time.

A form of free speech, in other words, and that is a value to which America as a nation holds dear.

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Making headlines:

A few more stories that have dominated the agenda over the last seven days:

• Last week in this column I wrote about the growing protests around Washington’s use of ‘Redskins’ as their team name. That debate has continued to gain prominence over the last seven days, with team owner Daniel Snyder writing a letter to all season ticket holders defending his stance, before Sunday Night Football host Bob Costas addressed the issue in his half-time piece to camera for NBC. “It's an insult, a slur, no matter how benign the present-day intent,” said Costas. “It is fair to say that for a long time now, and certainly in 2013, no offense has been intended. But, if you take a step back, isn't it clear to see how offense "might" legitimately be taken?”

• Peyton Manning returns to Indianapolis next week to take on his former team in a match-up of two AFC heavyweights. It might be years before we find out how the quarterback truly felt about the Colts’ decision to replace him with Andrew Luck last year, but the team’s owner, Jim Irsay, made some revealing comments in an interview with USA Today on Tuesday. He claimed that Manning himself had encouraged him to draft Luck, saying: “'You have to. You're crazy if you don't.'" Irsay also pointed out that neither Manning nor the Colts would be enjoying such success today if they had gone in a different direction, saying: “Circumstances created this decision. You have to understand there's no way this occurs if he's in Indy. It's just impossible, where our salary cap was. Having him stay at the type of [salary] that he expected and deserved to earn and all those things."

• Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin caught some flak on Tuesday for ordering his players not to celebrate their touchdowns with a somersault – just a few days after he had banned them from playing pool and table tennis at the team facility. But this is one of those stories that gets a little twisted in the telling. Pittsburgh’s own veteran players had already banned team-mates with less than four years of NFL experience from playing the aforementioned games during business hours, acting in the belief that the younger players needed to focus more intensely on their work. With the team slumping to 0-4 before this weekend, Tomlin presumably felt that the veterans, too, needed to knuckle down, but most of all feared that the existing set-up could cause a rift between the two groups. Prohibiting somersaults, meanwhile, is not such an unreasonable precaution. In 2001 the Arizona Cardinals kicker Bill Gramatica tore his anterior cruciate ligament simply while jumping to celebrate a successful field goal conversion.

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Quote of the week

 “I would venture to guess that I’ve sold more homes with exotic dancing poles than any other realtor in the country” - Jason Abrams, self-described ‘Jerry Maguire of real estate’, tells NFL Network about the most common special requests made by players when purchasing a new home.

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Three-and-out

• The greatest tailgating vehicle you will ever see.

• “UNICORNS! SHOW PONIES! WHERE’S THE BEEF?” – Scott Zolak, colour commentator for New England radio station 98.5 The Sports Hub, responds to Tom Brady’s game-winning touchdown pass against the Saints in his own inimitable style.

• Brady might be a superstar, but even he gets ignored from time to time.