April 18, 2014

Fightin' Words: Lessons from sports, even in tragedy


This week, Americans got to hear firsthand accounts, some for the first time, of a sporting tragedy, the lessons from which are as poignant as sport itself.

The network ESPN on Tuesday aired a chilling documentary chronicling the story of the Hillsborough disaster, to this day one of the worst in sporting history. It changed the face of British soccer forever, but there is also an important lesson in it all.

On the afternoon of April 15, 1989, a crucial semifinal game was scheduled between the famous Liverpool and the successful yet less well-known Nottingham Forrest. It was held at a neutral site, a stadium named Hillsborough in the town of Sheffield. Tens of thousands of fans packed the stadium, and this is where the trouble started.

Terraces, or standing room only areas, were very common in stadiums across the country as a cheap way for fans to enjoy the game. They were essentially steps elevating back from the field, and the monitoring of the amount of bodies in and out of these areas ranged from careless to nonexistent. Later, barriers were added to either prevent crushing or, more commonly, to prevent fans from spilling onto the field.

Police outside of Hillsborough were simply told to make sure the fans got into the terrace safely, as if they were cattle to be rustled into pens. To do this, they committed the worst mistake possible by opening a gate where thousands of Liverpool fans rushed into the already packed Leppings Lane end.

By the time the match started, it was too late. Fans already under enough pressure were succumbed to thousands of pounds more. Requests to open a barrier gate were left ignored until about six minutes into the game. People spilled onto the field, the game was stopped, and the toll was unimaginable.

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