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Are American sports fans turning into the citizens of ancient Rome, turning up to sports events to see mayhem akin to gladiators fighting for their very lives?
Stars in two of the country's most prominent sports were asking those kinds of questions Sunday.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., arguably the sport’s most popular personality in NASCAR racing, said he wonders if fans are "bloodthirsty."
If they watch races to see what transpired at the end of Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway, Earnhardt said they are.
And he’s had enough.
Earnhardt was part of a 25-car pileup at speeds of 200 mph on the final lap of Sunday’s Good Sam 500 that left the Alabama track looking like a junkyard.
"It's not safe. Wrecking like that, it's ridiculous. It's bloodthirsty if that's what people want,” Earnhardt said afterward, according to news reports, including SI.com.
"If this is what we did every week, I wouldn't be doing it. I'd find another job," Earnhardt said.
This isn’t what NASCAR does every week, but the drivers face what they call “The Big One,” the massive wrecks at the speedways in Talladega and Daytona Beach, Florida, four times a year.
“I don't even want to go to Daytona and Talladega next year, but I ain't got much choice,” Earnhardt said. He has to run the sport’s marquee tracks to run for a championship.
But Earnhardt knows well the dangers of these tracks and the consequences of accidents on them. His father, seven-time Sprint Cup series champion Dale Earnhardt Sr., was killed in an accident on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
NASCAR race cars use restrictor plates at Talladega and Daytona. The plates restrict airflow into the engines, cutting speeds but also evening out advantages that might be gained from tweaking the engine. The result is the cars run in big packs. Advantage is gained pairing up with other drivers as cars running tightly together can go faster than one running alone.
But one slight miscue can bring mayhem. That’s what happened Sunday.
"I just screwed up," said Tony Stewart, who was leading the race when he moved down the track slightly to block a run by Michael Waltrip, who was being pushed by Casey Mears.
"I turned down across, I think it was Michael, and crashed the whole field. It was my fault blocking to try to stay where I was at. So I take 100% of the blame," Stewart said, according to NASCAR.com.
But Earnhardt wasn’t blaming his fellow driver.
"The way we are going ain't the right direction," Earnhardt said, according to Autoweek. "There are plenty of engineers out there. I'm just a driver. There are plenty of smart people out there that can figure something out where, when one guy gets in trouble, we don't have 30 cars tore up at the expense of it.
"I don't care what anybody says. For the good of the sport – I mean it's good for the here and now and it will get people talking today – but for the long run that is not going to help the sport the way that race ended and the way the racing is. It's not going to be productive for years to come,” Earnhardt said.
Meanwhile, in Kansas City, Missouri, on Sunday, Chiefs offensive tackle Eric Winston was making the comparison to ancient Rome after the team's starting quarterback, Matt Cassel, who's been enduring a poor season for the Chiefs (1-4), was knocked from the game.
In the fourth quarter against the Baltimore Ravens, Cassell grabbed a snap and looked downfield for a receiver when the Ravens' Haloti Ngata hammered him. He stayed down on the ground and eventually left the game with a concussion. As medical staff tended to Cassel, backup quarterback Brady Quinn began warming up. Cassel walked off the field, and as Quinn entered, the fans in Kansas City began to cheer – but not for Quinn.
They were happy to see Cassel off the field and someone new in. At the time nobody knew how injured Cassel was – whether he had a concussion – which has been a hotly debated safety issue in the NFL.
That left Winston incensed.
"We are athletes, OK? We are athletes. We are not gladiators. This is not the Roman Colosseum," Winston told reporters after the game.
"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," said Winston, a seven-year veteran from the University of Miami.
"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. We are not gladiators and this is not the Roman Colosseum. This is a game," Winston said.
"We have a lot of problems as a society if people think that's OK."