April 18, 2014

Fightin' Words: Lessons from sports, even in tragedy

Adam Troxtell, Sports Editor,
The Express-Star


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.

By that night, authorities counted 96 Liverpool fans dead. They then embarked on a series of myths and lies, concocting tales of drunk fans breaking down the outside gate and causing their fellow supporters to suffer. Toxicology reports proved otherwise, but the courts never did hold anyone accountable.

For 25 years, the families of those 96 victims -- the youngest of which was ten -- have fought for justice only to have the system reject them until recently. Finally a new inquiry has brought new evidence that suggests the deaths can be reclassified from accidental and someone or some group can be held accountable.

Week-in and week-out, we watch athletes from high school, to college, to professional fight against the odds on the field or court. Yet it is difficult to apply that to our daily lives because it all just seems so impossible. In sport, as in life, there are things that simply hinder us and things that people use to hinder us.

Our job is to have the wisdom to tell between the two, accept the things that just happen, and finally fight for what we can change and never, ever surrender.

Justice for the 96.