Cheering for a person to get injured is despicable. Satisfaction derived from the pain and suffering of others is a sure sign that something might be messed up in your head. However, that’s exactly what schadenfreude is: the pleasure derived from someone else’s misfortune. The word exists for a reason. We’ve all experienced some level of this depraved emotion. When I was a little kid, maybe six or seven years of age, I remember getting so angry at my sister that I literally got down on my knees and prayed for her to die. For a brief moment, I wanted the ten plagues of pharaoh to befall her right in the face. When my little kid rage died down thirty minutes later, I went and prayed again, "Never mind." Nothing in that short time did happen to her, but the emotion of desiring her misfortune was ever so evident.
These emotions become even more convoluted when discussing the health or injuries of athletes. Recently the embattled Texans QB Matt Schaub injured his ankle and was forced to leave the field. The home town fans showed their satisfaction of Mr. Schaub’s misfortune, screaming at the top of their lungs. The only problem was that the game was in Houston and these home town fans were supposed to be cheering their team and not the unfortunate exit of their quarterback.
After the game, several of the Texans’ players lashed out against the fanbase.
"That is just tactless and tasteless. I was extremely heated at that. They have to go home and look at themselves in the mirror." – Arian Foster
Jonathan Joseph took it a step further, "They gonna do that, don't show the **** up."
This wasn’t an isolated experience. Just last year, the Kansas City fans cheered when their own starting quarterback Matt Cassel left the game because of a head injury nonetheless.
The Chiefs starting RT Eric Winston had this to say, "When you cheer somebody getting knocked out . . .it's sickening. It's 100% sickening . . . I've never been more embarrassed in my life to play football than in that moment right there."
He went on to say. "Matt Cassel hasn't done anything to you people . . . Hey, if he's not the best quarterback, then he's not the best quarterback and that's OK. But he's a person."
That last statement is what gets me to the crux of my argument. People have multiple emotions at play when reacting to any situation. The players are people first, and their basic understanding of injuries is much more personally relevant than that of us fans. As fans, we are unfortunately caught in this moral middle ground. As with my first statement, cheering for injuries is despicable, but we’re not just cheering for people, but for teams and championships.
Sports are a very unique forum of interest where the products in which we invest so heavily are also people. Almost no other place on earth is that true. Right now I have a heavy interest in Nabisco brands. The Keebler elf therefore is public enemy number one. There is almost zero chance that I will change my taste preferences from Ritz crackers to Townhouse. My biscuit rooting interests were already set at a younger age. So now if a box of Ritz falls off the shelf and gets damaged, I think nothing of it and just use the next box up strategy. But we can’t do that with people. Players are people first, but they are also a multi-billion dollar finely-tuned beautifully-constructed products to dazzle our entertainment hungry compulsions.
Most of us can be emotionally, financially, and even physically exhausted by our fanaticism to a brand. I have seen fans pay a relevant percentage of their annual salary towards their involvement with a particular team. So for Eric Winston to say that Matt Cassel "hasn’t done anything to you people," is an absolute misrepresentation of why all the Kansas City fans show up to the games. Fans "show up" because they have been dazzled by individual products on the field and feel emotionally conflicted when those products aren’t living up to their crazy expectations.
Michael Irvin’s experience summarizes this sentiment perfectly. In 1999 at Veteran’s Memorial stadium in Philadelphia Irvin received a career ending spinal injury and had to be carted off the field on a stretcher. He was recently interviewed and had this enlightening nugget to share, "Philly wasn’t cheering my injury. They were cheering my departure." He was acknowledging that he had beaten up on that franchise for the past decade and that they would now have some relief from his Hall of Fame level of play.
And that’s where fan schadenfreude rears its morally conflicting head. Teams are built around the idea of competitive balance. An injury to an opposing player serves a purpose to augment one’s own chances of success. I’m never rooting for someone to suffer, but there are players that I would most definitely feel more comfortable not playing against my team. I hear fans all the time talk about how they would like teams to be fully healthy, or in other words, "Our best against their best." And in a bubble, so would I. I would love for my team to utterly destroy the best teams and players to ever play the game, and to establish themselves in the upper echelons of eternal greatness. But at the end of the day, the Win is all that really matters, and I would rather have the competitive balance shifted my way as far as possible.
Let me take you back to Superbowl XL. For whatever reasons you want to say shifted the balance of that game, for me, a big one often not talked about, happened nearly 4 months earlier at a nightclub in Seattle. The Seahawks starting free safety Ken Hamlin suffered a fractured skull that ended his season. Marquand Manual stepped up for the remainder of the year doing a serviceable job until his very untimely exit in the second quarter of the biggest game of my life, er . . . uh, I mean their lives.
So, in steps the next man up, the 3rd stringer, below replacement quality, practice squad depth man up – Etric Pruitt. His career stat line was: 9 G, 0 GS, 1 PD, 9 Tkl. And he never played in another game again. Good for him. As a person he got to play in the Superbowl. I’m sure, a lifelong dream and memory. But for us the fans, the drop off from Ken Hamlin to Etric Pruitt was a shift in the competitive balance that could have been the difference in the World Championship game.
In the 3rd quarter, Willie Parker ripped off the longest run in Superbowl history. I would include a .gif of it below, but it’s too painful, and I don’t know how. The last man you see diving at Parker’s legs was #35 Etric Pruitt. Whether he was out of position, I couldn’t tell. Or whether or not Hamlin could have prevented it, also is questionable. But, regardless of how it played out, the Seahawks were at a personnel disadvantage.
In a perfect world, no one would ever get injured, there would be no need for orphanages and people would stop posting so many pictures of adorable kittens on facebook. I mean, c’mon, that’s just too many. Injuries in sports do happen, but rooting for them is a slippery slope. One day you can feel a glint of relief that your team won’t have to face superstar X next week. The next day you’re yelling at your TV for your linebacker to rip out the quarterback’s clavicle. On the other hand, the knee jerk pundits talk about the "classless" nature of cheering injuries at break neck speeds. So I guess, what I’m trying to say is, don’t have knee jerk reactions on slippery slopes at neck breaking speeds.
Schadenfreude responsibly my friends!