13 September 2012

This sporting death

On Tuesday I tweeted that the real climax of 2012's great Summer of Sport was not Andy Murray winning the US Open, but the release of the Hillsborough Independent Panel's report into that ill-fated FA Cup semi-final on 15 April 1989 (full report here). But as the full extent of the systematic abuse of due process emerged, I realised the difficulty in understanding why such a broad "coalition of culpability" took so long to be exposed is because of the revolution that has taken place in professional sport in the UK since those dark days.

If your only frame of reference is the modern stadia of the Premier League of today, it's hard to imagine what it was like to attend a professional football match back in the 1980s. Many people remember fondly the swaying terraces of Old Wembley in the pre-seats era. Me, I remember the toilets that probably defied the Geneva Convention, terrible noisome pissoirs as seemingly imagined by the men who built the Soviet Gulags. The frightening swaying terraced crowds, a baying monster of profanities that engulfed you and threatening to spit in your hair or stub its cigarette out on your neck. And the FA and government scratched their heads as to why violent thugs used to turn up at such venues to pick fights when the whole set-up seemed designed to entice them in at the expense at anyone else with basic social skills and awareness of personal hygiene. It's hard to pinpoint which came first in this particular chicken-and-egg scenario - did people behave like animals because they were treated like them, or vice versa?

Anyone under the age of 35 might be shocked that people were locked into cages to view football matches. But although unheeded warnings had apparently been given by Health & Safety professionals to the indifferent suits at the FA, at the time it seemed perfectly normal. The question of how to evacuate people from such enclosures was couched solely in terms of containing social disorder rather than protecting the lives of the fans themselves. This shows the extent to which football fans had become dehumanised and demonised into a collective mob in the eyes of many members of the press and, it must be said, the wider general public. And you don't have to look very far through the news reports of football matches of the day to see why.

And not to put too fine a point on it, by April 15, 1989 Liverpool FC were themselves four years into a ban from European football competitions because of the actions of their own fans. In such a context it is easy to see why The Sun's smears of drunken, violent, thieving yobs was seized upon as official explanation, and why it took so long to shake. Liverpool fans fitted the convention demanded by the narrative, because the alternative was more unpalatable: that we'd have to start treating football fans as human beings, with all the variety and complexity that entails, instead of members of a quasi-illegal militia.

The journey from the squalor of Hillsborough to the triumph of London 2012 was the slow dawning amongst a broader populace that watching and celebrating sporting achievements was an acceptable activity, and that if you raise the expectations of its fans, you can raise your own expectations of their behaviour. Hillsborough in 1989 seems shocking to us in 2012 not just because of the callous disregard for human life by contemptuous public bodies, but because the expectation of what public sporting occasions can and should be has changed so much. When so much talk around London 2012 is of "legacy", the Games themselves were the true legacy of Hillsborough: that you can go to a sporting occasion with the expectation of returning alive. What a pity it took 96 deaths to rise to that challenge.