The Right Approach to Hillsborough

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How ESPN Got it Right With a 30-for-30 Documentary 
By Greg Hudson
 
America has never had a major sports disaster. Aside from the Mets’ collapse in 2007, there have been no major tragedies in the annals of American sporting events that resulted in massive loss of spectator lives.
 
That isn’t true in England. In 1902, a wooden terrace at the Ibrox stadium in Glasgow collapsed, killing 26 spectators. In 1946, Bolton’s Burnden Park was the scene of overcrowding so profound that 33 fans were trampled to death. In 1985, Valley Parade, the home of Bradford City F.C., caught fire, claiming 56 lives.
 
And then there’s Hillsborough. April 15, 1989. A date which will truly live in infamy, if not only for the disaster itself then for the inconceivable act by police and government agencies to blame the worst disaster in English sporting history on fans who did nothing wrong.
 
On April 15, 1989, Liverpool and Nottingham Forest met in the semifinal fixture of the F.A. Cup, England’s showpiece sports tournament. The match was arranged to be played at the neutral ground of Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, thanks to its large capacity of 54,000 and its relatively equal distance from each of the teams. According to the regulations long established in England, the two sets of fans were segregated from each other to cut down chances for violence. But the segregated entry to the stadium meant over 8,000 Liverpool supporters could only enter the stadium through seven individual turnstiles, or over 1,000 fans per turnstile.
 
As kickoff drew near, the nearly 3,000 Liverpool fans in the stadium entered a standing-room enclosure behind the Liverpool goal, quickly filling it to capacity. To accommodate the other 5,000 fans still waiting to enter the stadium, police security opened an exit gate to allow for faster entry to the stands, but in doing so, failed to seal off the entry way into the already-full standing enclosures behind the goal.
 
As hundreds of fans attempted to enter the enclosures, pressure from the crowd behind them forced them further into the overcrowded enclosure, crushing over 100 fans against the metal fencing barricading fans from going onto the field. In the resulting chaos, 96 Liverpool supporters, most of them under age 35, died. The youngest victim was 10-year-old John-Paul Gilhooley, whose cousin Steven Gerrard is Liverpool’s captain today.
 
Yorkshire police quickly began to cover up the disaster by filing reports claiming that the crush was caused by drunken fans “forcing their way” into the stadium illegally. For over 20 years, the British government considered the disaster an accident, an a lawsuit filed against the Yorkshire police ruled all 96 deaths as accidental.
 
But in 2012, a new independent panel, reviewing evidence and a previous report by Lord Justice Taylor (the first report to accurately blame the disaster on a failure of police to provide fans a safe access to the stadium), discovered the original reports and observed that many had been altered or falsified, leading to the dismissal of the original verdicts, the re-opening of the case, and the chance for the families of the 96 to finally see justice for their loved ones.
 
To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the disaster, ESPN’s 30-for-30 documentary series presented a 2-hour program on Hillsborough designed to educate Americans on the darker side of sports. It met with rave reviews, watched by so many people that the top-trending global hashtag on twitter was #30for30 after it aired Tuesday night, 25 years to the day after the tragedy.
 
And there’s no doubting why: it was brilliant. ESPN and director Daniel Gordon got it exactly right, creating a compelling piece that told the story not only from the perspective of the family members of the victims, but also from the perspective of the Yorkshire policemen at Hillsborough that day who were appalled at the lack of coordination and leadership shown by their superior officers, and the investigative journalist who uncovered the truth about the falsified reports.
 
In the end, this 30-for-30 documentary stands out as one of the most human features ESPN has ever aired, displaying all the emotions of the disaster and the ongoing fight for justice so long denied.
 
But the moment that capped off the program came right as the screen cut to black for the end credits. Instead of the standard credit reel, three words appeared on the screen:
 
“For the 96.”
 
In the end, sports isn’t about the players, or the teams, or the cities. It’s not about contract extensions, advertising revenues, or salary caps. It’s about the fans.
 
It’s a fact every American fan should remember every time they go to see a game and come home safely. It’s a fact every team should remember each time they jack up the cost of tickets or concessions. And it’s a fact that every multi-million-dollar-contract-extension-signing “athlete who thinks he’s made OF pure gold”
 
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The Hillsborough Justice Foundation has been the leading force fighting for justice on behalf of the families of the 96 victims of the Hillsborough disaster. For more information or to donate to the cause on behalf of sports fans around the world, visit their facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/HJCOfficial
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