For decades, Philadelphia sports fans have earned a reputation built on equal parts fierce loyalty, intensity and raucousness. They are now being called uncouth by city leaders, residents and Eagles players who expressed outrage over the behavior of fans that cheered when Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin was injured Sunday.
Irvin suffered a spinal cord injury after catching an eight-yard slant pass and slamming his head against the artificial turf while trying to avoid oncoming tacklers in the first quarter at Veterans Stadium.
Doctors at Thomas Jefferson University Spine Trauma Center later diagnosed Irvin's injury as swelling of the spinal cord. He was released from the hospital yesterday and flew home to Dallas. Although he walked into his team's practice facility yesterday, a team spokesman said that Irvin will be re-examined by a spinal cord specialist on Wednesday.
But as Irvin lay motionless on the field Sunday, not only did some of the 66,669 fans cheer once they recognized that Irvin was hurt, they later erupted as trainers came onto the field to attend to him and paramedics strapped him onto a stretcher and placed him in an ambulance.
Throughout Philadelphia, on the radio airwaves and in newspaper columns, the behavior of those fans was deplored as the worst display of sportsmanship in recent memory.
"This, in terms of bad taste, was as bad as it gets," Mayor Edward Rendell told the Associated Press. "There is no excuse for what we did."
On WIP-AM, an all-sports radio station, talk show host Rob Charry said callers struggled to explain the behavior. Some fans, Charry said, blamed the booing on Irvin's past actions at Eagles games. Others expressed sadness over the entire episode.
"Nobody's excusing the behavior of fans, but people are trying to explain it," Charry said. "It's a rivalry. He's built up a hatred, so that it's natural when he goes down with an injury they cheer. Now, when he gets carted off, that's embarrassing."
Some callers blamed the cheering on the frustration over the failure of their teams over the years. On Nov. 10, 1997, a fan shot a flare gun across the field into the stands during a nationally televised game against the San Francisco 49ers.
This year, St. Louis Cardinals outfielder J.D. Drew had batteries thrown at him by fans who were angry that he didn't sign with the Phillies after they drafted him in 1997.
"This stuff happens everywhere," Charry said. "But when it happens in Philadelphia people pay more attention."
But those incidents pale in comparison to the fans' reaction to Irvin, said several Eagles players who voiced disgust that people would cheer for a fallen player.
"The fans usually end up hating the good athletes, but he's a human being," Philadelphia wide receiver Charles Johnson said in the Dallas Morning News. "He has a family and he's getting wheeled off on a stretcher, it puts everything in perspective."
Even in the midst of a heated rivalry, Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith said fans should have displayed more concern for a player whose injury at first appeared very serious.
"Some people need to grow up and find some inner peace, because there is no peace in watching somebody suffer," Smith said. "There's nothing joyful about watching a person get hurt."
Deion Sanders, Irvin's teammate, said the fans displayed "ignorance and stupidity," but said it didn't surprise him. "That's the one thing about our game, that people can actually cheer upon a man's injury."
Special correspondent Seth Emerson contributed to this report.