He’s a Riot!: In Which a Boston Globe Columnist Makes Liverpool Fans See Red
On Tuesday, Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam made the mistake of 1) making a factual error; 2) making a factual error about English soccer; and 3) making a factual error about the English club Liverpool. Why a featherweight general columnist, who, during his sunset years churns out vanilla observational pieces, thought he had the chops to tackle the life-and-death seriousness of soccer fandom, is a mystery that may never be solved. But by now, almost a week after the offending article, if the man has a shred of decency, he’ll regret the mistake.
Last Tuesday, Beam was ostensibly commenting on a nearly two-month-old ‘news’ item about the Boston-based investment company New England Sports Ventures (who own the Red Sox) buying Liverpool Football Club. Beam, as it turned out, messed with the wrong people: Liverpool F.C. happens to be one of the most popular sporting entities in the known universe, and has recently survived a cynical and rocky ownership by American businessmen Tom Hicks and George Gillett (This is a story for another day, and a long and sordid story at that; but suffice it to say, Hicks and Gillett were well-hated along the Mersey. How much? The club conducted an end-run maneuver, by electing a chairman with one simple charge: to find a buyer for the club. Which he did). In short, Liverpool fans were in no mood for crap, and in one gratuitously nasty, 500-word column, Beam shoveled a whole pitch-full of crap their way.
The most offensive item in the column, and the item that, in the newspapering business, is known as a “correctible error,” was a single word: “riot”—used in both an erroneous and shockingly callous way. Beam wrote: “Even by the deranged standards of European soccer, Red fans are totally bonkers. Their excitable Internet fan sites are still agonizing over a 21-year-old soccer stadium riot that killed 96 people.” Wow, how about that, “still” agonizing, as if there is a statute of limitations on grief.
What enraged thousands of Liverpool fans, was the implication carried in the word “riot.” This is an odious mischaracterization of the events of that day, April 15, 1989, and in using it, Beam suggests that the deaths of those 96 fans were due to some sort of hooligan disturbance then rampant at English soccer matches. What Beam failed to fact-check—what has been pointed out to him by hundreds of comments and letter to The Globe, and thousands of more angry blog posts world-wide on those “excitable Liverpool” supporter sites—is that a thorough investigation of the now-infamous Hillsborough tragedy found the fans essentially blameless, and points the finger squarely at poor crowd-control tactics by the local police. The Globe quickly scrubbed the word “riot,” substituting it with “disturbance,” and offered a dry correction citing a “reporting error.”
The Hillsborough Disaster is named for the home ground of Sheffield Wednesday F.C., where Liverpool was facing Nottingham Forest (at the neutral site) in the semi-final of the 1989 F.A. Cup. At that time, English football stadiums had both ticketed sections with seats, and general-admission, standing-room-only terraces, where fans would pack in shoulder to shoulder. In the tradition of English football, fans of opposing teams were segregated. For unexplained reasons, the Nottingham Forest contingent was given thousands more seats, even though by most accounts, Liverpool was the bigger club with more supporters. The stands were penned off into sections by fences that were sometimes 10 or more feet tall. Many stadiums, including Hillsborough, had tall chain link fences that separated the stands from the field, due to the hooligan pitch-invasions that had been the scourge of the game for years.
That day, one particular Liverpool section was situated behind one of the goals, the so-called Leppings Lane terrace. By kickoff, the terrace was already uncomfortably overcrowded, with thousands more late-arriving Liverpool fans piled up outside waiting to get in the stadium (there were construction-related traffic jams getting to the match). To alleviate the dangerous outside overcrowding, an order was given by the local police to open a tunnel normally used for the end-of-game exit, a tunnel that led directly to the soon-to-be-tragic section. Thousands of spectators were suddenly borne along into the terrace, crushing those in front.
BBC was televising the game for its Match of the Day program, and in film footage widely available online, you can see where a frightening surge of fans enters that section after the gate was opened. People attempted to exit the Leppings Lane terrace any way they could, some by being pulled up to the section above by observant and helpful spectators, and others by climbing the fences leading onto the pitch. Eventually, the crush destroyed those pitch-barriers, and fans lucky enough were able to escape onto the playing field. But not before 96 people—all Liverpool fans—were crushed to death, some dying of injuries sustained by trampling and others from compressive asphyxia. Over 700 people were injured, and of those, over 300 were hospitalized. The game was suspended after only six minutes of play, and the field became an impromptu triage site, once authorities and the clubs realized what was happening.
Perhaps the only good to come out of Hillsborough, is that new rules were put in place, in the name of stadium safety. After the report from the official investigation came out, the so-called Taylor Report, new stadiums in England are built without the standing-room-only terraces and now have a one-ticket-for-one-seat policy. Clubs also took down the fences that separate the stands from the fields, and increased security to discourage pitch-invasions.
In the ensuing days after the tragedy, some sensationalist tabloids slagged off the Liverpool fans, as if the poor crowd control and omissive mistakes by the local constabulary was their fault. Particularly vicious was that beacon of journalism, The Sun, where a sick front-pager a few days later blared “The Truth” (in Pearl Harbor type-size) and claimed, from unnamed sources, that fans were seen attacking rescue workers and urinating on prone bodies. In retribution, a coordinated boycott slashed The Sun’s Liverpool readership from 300,000 to less than 15,000 and to this day, many newsagents in the city won’t carry that paper. It was these early—and ultimately unsubstantiated—accusations blaming the victims that made Liverpool fans so tetchy at Beam’s recent column. Supporters couldn’t fathom how a journalist could get this so wrong, when there is so much information out there about the event (including a one-click Wikipedia download of the official, 100+ page Taylor Report).
For tens of thousands of years, the human animal has been honoring and respecting their dead. There is no mystery in that. It’s one of our most sacred and connective traits as people. We bury, cremate, mummify, raise on platforms, and sink our dead. We hold funerals, memorial services, write odes, get tattoos, take out newspaper classifieds, dedicate websites, buildings, hospital wings, college dormitories, and park benches for our dead. We investigate deaths we think are wrongful. On anniversaries we gather to remember, read passages, sing favorite songs, cry on shoulders, and drink a toast to our dead. Like opposable thumbs, it’s one of the traits that separates us from other animals.
It takes a certain sort of hateful, insensitive, and angry person to not recognize this. So why describe this particular instance of remembrance, this behavior by Liverpool fans, as “bonkers?” As much as the “riot” comment was offensive for Liverpool fans, what I found so discomforting and baffling was the mocking of family and friends who continue to grieve.
I know something about this first-hand, through another solemn anniversary marking a tragedy where many innocents lost their lives. I was living in London in 1988 when Pan Am flight 103 was bombed four days before Christmas, killing all 259 passengers and crew and 11 in the town of Lockerbie, Scotland, where the plane and debris crashed to earth. A girl I knew from college, Lindsey Otenasek, was on the plane, one of 35 students participating in Syracuse University’s semester abroad program. I got to know Lindsey’s large, Baltimore family, and have attended their annual memorial service on December 21st a few times over the years. The family, as much as a family can, has moved on, but always with Lindsey in their hearts.
I imagine it’s the same with the Liverpool families: there will always be anger, and forever a surreal feeling that the person is still around; certain times of the year (particularly around the anniversary and holidays) are harder than others. And I know for a fact that as the years go by, every relative thinks of their loved one every single day. They never forget, they’re never not sad about it, they always and constantly wonder what their loved one would be doing right now: married? kids? a brilliant career? an adventurous life?
Is it ignorance or anger or insecurity that prompts a writer to make fun of a subject he doesn’t know or understand? I write about sports, and I generally write about the sports I know and love (soccer, horse racing, hockey, and baseball, mostly). I don’t particularly like golf or NASCAR, but if I was asked to cover some aspect or event in those sports, I like to think that I would make a fair attempt to learn about those sports, in order to write something both intelligent and respectful. There seems to be this attitude in a certain type of “humorist/sports columnist” on big-city papers, where they like to trumpet their ignorance, and play it for laughs.
Knowing the story and details of this horrific chapter in English football, it’s hard to understand what sort of person would so callously describe the Hillsborough tragedy as a “riot”; what sort of man would mock loved ones for continuing to recognize and pay tribute to the dead? And while we’re at it, how has Beam’s editor gotten off scott-free? Sure, Beam wrote the ridiculous column, but isn’t anyone reading his stuff behind him? Does The Globe just rubber-stamp and publish Beam’s columns without even bothering to check the facts, or to query The Mighty Columnist as to why he would run the risk of pissing off an entire city?
On Saturday, at The 11th Street Bar in the East Village—the headquarters of the Liverpool Supporters Club New York—the discussion seems to center more around whether American Clint Dempsey could be wooed away from his West London club Fulham. Liverpool’s current manager, Roy Hodgson, coached Dempsey’s Fulham last year to a surprise runner-up place in The Europa League competition, and has shown interest in making Dempsey an offer come January. (Hodgson, incidentally, was also dissed in the same column when Beam called him “mediocre.”)
But up the coast, the Boston Liverpool Fan Club is mobilized. The Club chairman, Tim Treacy, wrote a letter to The Globe, imploring the paper and Beam to make a written apology. “I would urge you to apologize, be the better person, think of the grief and hurt you have recently inflicted on thousands of people and rise to be better than The Sun. The retraction of the word ‘riot’ was not even close to healing these wounds, an apology is what is needed. It would be unfortunate for The Globe to do otherwise.” Do I detect a veiled threat of a Globe boycott?
The sad thing is this: all you need to know about Alex Beam is right there on the page of that column. His insensitivity to mourning relatives, his lazy fact-checking, his arrogance in not making an apology (thus far) or even acknowledging any sort of bad judgment. This is who he is: a former reporter coasting in late-middle-age, tackling subjects he knows nothing about (and cares nothing for learning about them), making a living by mailing it in, enabled by editors who are either too bored by his writing to care, or too cowed by what I can only assume is an untouchable stature at the paper. As Tim Treacy, suggests: be the better person and apologize. Beam’s column runs every Tuesday; I, for one, will be checking online to see how (or if) he addresses the issue.