This week, the Matt Cassel incident in Kansas City has most of the sports world debating whether it was ok or not for the fans to cheer when he was lying on the field knocked out with a concussion. We've seen some strong opinions in the media, but there's an imporant aspect of this story that isn't being mentioned - the psychology of crowds.
Jason Whitlock of FOX Sports wrote a polarizing article today in favor of the fans right to cheer. I'm not going to recite his entire piece, but he made several points supporting his case. First, he compared the brutality of the NFL to that of boxing and MMA, as if to say that we can't have it both ways when we see a guy knocked out in football. Second, he redirected the issue towards the Kansas City Chiefs ownership and management - arguing that the Chiefs fans' passion and loyalty have been taken advantage of. Lastly, he went on to rail the decision to bring in Matt Cassel in the first place.
On the other end of the spectrum, Dan Patrick rebutted Whitlock's article on his radio show by saying he missed the point. Patrick stated that it shouldn't be ok to cheer an injury of your own player no matter how violent the sport is or how unhappy the fans are. Morally, it's just wrong. Patrick went on to say that fans were cheering Cassel's injury not because they are sociopathic fans, but because their quarterback makes so much money and they don't want him in there.
The Truth Lies Somewhere in the Middle
Look, I wasn't at the game so I'm not going to pretend like I know all the particulars of what, and how, the incident played out on Sunday. But what I do know is when it comes to the behavior of sports fans, there are other (often overlooked) variables at play. Let's take a quick look at them one by one.
In this sense, Whitlock made a relevant point when he referenced the long history of losing in Kansas City. These fans are not only upset about the play of their team this year, but the dissatisfaction goes back many years.
This is a term used in psychology to describe how a wave of emotion, either good or bad, can spread like wildfire through a crowd without any logical reason behind it. We can't be sure how many fans cheered when Cassel went down, but it's plausible that many joined in simply because others were doing it. This is a product of natural group dynamics that go beyond the individual.
This happens at almost every sporting event. When a fan puts on the face paint, wears team gear, and so on, they lose their sense of self and become part of a greater identity. As a result, people begin to think as a group, rather than an individual. It's easy for us to pass judgment on the people that were at the game, but if you've ever been to a sporting event or concert, you'll know that the power of the group is very persuasive in the moment. Fans express their emotions much more freely and often exagerrate their feelings in a crowd. Deindividuation illlustrates the enourmous power of anomynity and often explains why so many people say and do things at a game that they'd never do outside of an arena.
Diffusion of Responsiblity
It might seem counter-intuitive, but the more people there are at an event, the less likely it is for individuals to come to the defense of a victim. The underlying assumption people have is that someone else will stand out from the crowd and do the right thing. In contrast, this can work the other way too. With so many people doing something wrong, like booing your own injured player, there's very little chance that they are going to feel responsible for anything. Fans recategorize themselves as part of the group, not as an individual.
False Consensus Effect
When looking back at an incident, people often attribute their beliefs and actions during the event to other fans., but in reality the unity of the crowd is an illusion. Perhaps some that chose to cheer on Sunday assumed that the vast majority of fans felt it was ok and right to cheer. This leads people to imitate each other and escalate the cheering. Because the cheering goes unchallenged, it is assumed it is acceptable and subsequently becomes normative. However, if you interviewed most people after the fact, you are unlikely to discover such a consensus.
As you can see, when it comes to crowd behavior, there is no simple answer. The crux of the issue is not going to fit nicely into a seven minute talk radio segment either. I'm not trying to argue that those that cheered Matt Cassel's injury are exempt from responsibility, because they're not, but what I do argue is that there are other powerful forces at work that complicate the issue.
Cheering Cassel's injury in the comfort of your living room is nowhere close to the same if you did it in the midst of 60,000 passionate fans. People get swept up in large groups and when you throw in years of fan frustration, alcohol, and various psychological factors, it's easy to see why a national debate unfolds.
Assigning blame or differentiating right from wrong in this case, is a taxing exercise at best.