New code of behavior for NFL fans flies in the face of game’s violence

Here is my Tuesday column on the wave incident at Candlestick Park last Sunday, October 13.

SANTA CLARA – You and I are supposed to feel contempt for certain football fans in San Francisco and Houston this week.

Last Sunday in Houston, some Texans fans cheered when Matt Schaub, their own quarterback, sprained his ankle in the third quarter and limped out of the game.


A few hours later in San Francisco, some fans – to me, it seemed like most fans – did the wave while Cardinals defensive lineman Calais Campbell lay on the field with a neck injury.

Even colder, in a way.

The Texans fans expressed their opinion on their quarterback – he stinks – after he had suffered a relatively minor injury. The 49ers fans expressed complete apathy toward a player who was down. Let’s get back to enjoying the win or we’ll entertain ourselves. That’s what the wave meant.

Shame on those fans, right?

Joe Staley feels that way: “There is a man down there on the field getting carted off, you got fans out there doing the wave – I thought it was disrespectful.”

Staley accused the fans of being inhumane and he may have a point, but let’s reverse the roles.

Week 1 against the Packers, a fan fell off a pedestrian walkway at Candlestick and died on a sidewalk just moments after kickoff. Did the 49ers stop the game to honor the dead man? Was there a moment of silence for him?

No way.

You could easily twist Staley’s words and use them against him: “There is a man down there on the sidewalk dead, you got guys out there playing a game – I thought it was disrespectful.”

Here’s what Staley really is saying, even if he doesn’t know it: Football players are a higher form of humanity than everyone else and should be treated that way.

But let’s face the brutal facts about a brutal game. NFL players routinely celebrate after big hits. They dance and prance and wave their fists. It happens every week.

One classic example you remember: January 2012. The 49ers hosted the Saints in a divisional playoff game. Donte Whitner, who is legally changing his name to Donte “Hitner” because hit is what he does, hit Pierre Thomas helmet-to-helmet and knocked him out. Whitner marched off the field flexing his biceps as Thomas lay unconscious on the grass. The crowd went nuts. No one accused Whitner or the fans of being disrespectful to Thomas. Whitner was “being physical” and if Thomas couldn’t take it, he should retire.

If Staley and players like him really care about player safety, they wouldn’t play football. They’d play basketball or ping pong or take up accounting. And if fans really care about player safety, they wouldn’t pay tickets to attend football games.

Football is a violent sport. The NFL used to market it that way in the ’70s and ’80s – watch these gladiators crash into each other – but today, NFL people have toned down their rhetoric. They call the game “physical,” but it is a code for “violent.” Football is among the most violent sports in the country.

Football often involves a big defensive end running at and hitting a small, defenseless quarterback from behind. That doesn’t happen in boxing or mixed martial arts. In those sports, there are weight divisions and fighters fight each other face to face.

The NFL pretends violence is an unfortunate by-product of football, but that is phony. Violence is the hook of football. Football is the No. 1 sport in the country because it is violent. If football were non-violent, if it were flag football, hardly anyone would watch it.

The day after the wave incident at Candlestick Park, Jim Harbaugh explained proper NFL-fan-etiquette when a player gets injured: “The best thing to do is silence, let the doctors do their work and collective prayer would be much appreciated.”

The same mentality would be absurd in boxing. Last year at the post-fight press conference after Juan Manuel Marquez knocked out Manny Pacquiao, Marquez didn’t say, “Before I discuss the significance of this victory to my family, my country and myself, I would like to say I’m terribly disappointed in the fans who cheered when I knocked the —- out of Pacquiao. The best thing to do is silence, let the doctors do their work and collective prayer would be much appreciated.”


How come cheering is allowed in boxing and MMA, two violent sports, but not football, an equally violent sport? Is football more moral than those sports? Not really.

After the 49ers game against the Cardinals, Jed York tweeted, “To say I’m disappointed some fans did the wave this afternoon while (Campbell) was down is an understatement.”

So, York is a sports moralist. He probably wouldn’t have cheered after Marquez KO’d Pacquiao. It could have led to hurt feelings.

What position is York in to preach to the fans? Is York a priest? Did he major in ethics? No, he majored in business. Before York preaches proper behavior to the fans, he needs to think about his own behavior. He let Aldon Smith play against the Colts two days after Smith drunkenly drove his truck into a tree when it was known Smith had a substance abuse problem, and currently is under indictment for shooting illegal assault rifles. York could have stepped in before the Colts’ game and said, “This is my team, Aldon Smith is not playing, this isn’t right.”

He didn’t. If York had said no to playing Smith, he would be on firmer ground to preach to fans.

York and Harbaugh and Staley and the rest of the NFL need to admit the facts. The fans Sunday were bored. They weren’t thinking about Campbell. They were thinking about the game which the 49ers were about to win. They wanted to celebrate. That was their business. They paid their money. They didn’t pay to go to church. They were within their rights legally and morally to enjoy themselves.

If they had done the wave at a boxing match no one would have said a word.

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at

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