Eric Winston is my idol.
By now, maybe you've seen the video clip. Winston stands in front of his locker after the Kansas Chiefs' 9-6 loss to the Ravens Sunday and tells us what he thinks about the hometown fans who cheered when Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel was knocked unconscious in the fourth quarter.
"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 been more embarrassed in my life to play football than in that moment right there.''
There was more. Much more.
"We are athletes, OK? We are athletes. We are not gladiators. This is not the Roman Coliseum. Matt Cassel hasn't done anything to you people . . . hasn't done anything to the media writers who 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 then 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 have 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 are one of those people, one of those people that were out there cheering or even smiled when he got knocked out, I just want to let you know, and I want everybody to know that I think it's sickening and disgusting.''
Amen, brother Eric.
Winston is from Midland, Texas. He went to the University of Miami. He plays offensive line. He is 28 years old, is 6 feet 7 inches, and weighs 300 pounds.
I never heard of him before Sunday, but I love this guy. He said something that needed to be said.
Let's go over a couple of points here:
First off, it wasn't 70,000 fans cheering Cassel's injury. It wasn't everybody at the stadium. But it was enough to be heard on the telecast.
It's surprising that this happened in Kansas City. It would have fulfilled all of our cliches if the episode unfolded in Philadelphia, where they boo everybody. Kansas City is part of the fan friendly Big Middle of America. KC fans will be unfairly maligned for this one situation.
It's not a regional issue. It's not about Kansas City. It's not about Boston or New York or Philly being a tough town for ballplayers. It's not about a heated rivalry between Michigan and Ohio State.
It's an issue about civility in America today. It's about accountability. It is about angry fantasy football players who do not know how to look someone in the eye, or hold a face-to-face conversation. It is about fanboy bloggers who kill everyone and everything under the brave cloak of anonymity. It's about instant tweets fired from the safety of your basement. It is about anonymous bullying with the World Wide Web serving as the new bathroom wall.
Those of us who write stories and do talk shows are not blameless. Winston made a good point when he said that Cassel "hasn't done anything to the media writers who kill him . . . "
I've certainly done my share of tweaking and exposing professional athletes or organizations who don't give an honest effort to live up to their contracts or fulfill the team-fan accord. In print, on TV and radio, we contribute to a climate of anger in the stands. But at least you know who we are.
The fan-player dynamic went off the rails when reporters and fans stopped seeing the players as human beings. Too bad Winston had to remind us that Cassel is "a person.''
Here in New England we remember Cassel as a nice person and a guy who quarterbacked the Patriots to an 11-5 season when Tom Brady was hurt in 2008. We remember Cassel as the young man who played, and beat the Raiders, a few days after his father died. He was a ballplayer, and a person dealing with loss.
Sunday he was a person with a head injury, lying on the ground of Arrowhead Stadium. And a number of fans cheered. They cheered because they were frustrated, angry, and certain to remain anonymous.
This is what the Internet guarantees. Cyberspace is the 21st-century crank phone call. Be as vicious as you want. Let it all out. Cheer the plight of the struggling quarterback while he lies motionless on the field. No one will ever know it's you.
ESPN played Winston's words about a million times and the network gave faceless "fans" a chance to respond. My favorite missive was from a nitwit who wrote, "Fans should be able to do whatever they please. They support the team.''
No. Supporting the team doesn't give you the right to be a sub-human coward.
"We've got a lot of problems as a society if people think that's OK,'' said Winston. "It's not OK and I want everyone to know it's not OK.''