1989 U.K. Soccer Disaster Still Stirs Emotions

Steven Cohen, a sports radio host in Los Angeles, has touched the third rail of British soccer fandom. Recently he insinuated Liverpool fans may have been partially to blame for the 1989 Hillsborough disaster in which 96 people were killed. That's brought him death threats from all over and boycotts from sponsors.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. April 15, 1989 is a date seared into the memories of English soccer fans.

(Soundbite of television program)

Unidentified Man: A news from ITF.

Unidentified Woman: Over 50 feared dead in FA Cup soccer disaster. Ambulance chief say…

BLOCK: Ninety-six people ultimately died in a crush of spectators at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, the worst disaster in British soccer history. Now, the tragedy at Hillsborough Stadium is generating new controversy 20 years later and thousands of miles from where it happened.

NPR's Tom Goldman has our story.

(Soundbite of radio program, "World Soccer Daily")

Mr. STEVEN COHEN (Radio Host): All right. Good morning. Welcome to the Wednesday edition of "World Soccer Daily" live from Los Angeles, California.

TOM GOLDMAN: For the past seven years, radio host Steven Cohen has brought all things soccer to an enthusiastic North American audience. Nearly 300,000 listeners download his "World Soccer Daily" podcast each day. But a month ago, right around the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy that claimed the lives of 96 Liverpool fans, Cohen said this on air.

(Soundbite of radio program, "World Soccer Daily")

Mr. COHEN: In this weekend's Sunday papers in England, where they're all doing big commemorations about the 96 and why we should never forget and how it's changed the game, nobody discusses the 6,000 to 8,000 who showed up without tickets, and my argument has always been, and I'll leave it at this, if those people don't show up, this never happens.

GOLDMAN: In Cohen's mind, unruly and in some cases drunk Liverpool fans outside the Hillsborough stadium trying to get in were at least partly responsible for the crush that killed their compatriots. To say the comment touched a nerve is like saying a nuclear bomb causes a lot of destruction. Anger, sometimes in the form of death threats, spread quickly and globally through email and message boards. Here's a sampling.

Kill yourself, you stupid bleep. You don't know about Hillsborough. If Liverpool fans helped cause Hillsborough, then Americans are responsible for 9/11. Burn in hell.

Last week, Liverpool's 13 North American based fan clubs began boycotting companies that advertise on "World Soccer Daily." So far, three sponsors have pulled their support. Steven Cohen compares his most vocal critics to the Taliban.

Mr. COHEN: They don't agree with what you say, and you should be out of business, or you should die for what you've said.

Unidentified Man: I do condone the death threats and the related behavior. Definitely, equally despicable. I mean, people shouldn't be doing that.

GOLDMAN: But one could point out to Christopher Harris that he lit the fire that caused some of the vitriol. Harris, who lives in Florida, writes a popular soccer blog called EPL Talk. Several days after Cohen made his radio remarks, Harris posted an entry rebutting Cohen's position. Harris included links to the official report on the disaster, which put most of the blame on local police for not controlling the situation.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER HARRIS (Founder, EPL Talk): As a soccer fan but also a soccer businessman in the United States, I don't want the United States and soccer fans in the United States learning about Hillsborough and what happened through his words. It hurts me deeply.

GOLDMAN: Cohen says he has streams of emails of people who understand exactly what he's saying.

Mr. COHEN: And let me be clear about what I'm saying, and I'm saying that nobody went down there with evil in their heart that day, nobody.

GOLDMAN: But to understand the soccer culture of the day, Cohen says, is to understand that rowdy, ticketless fans bent on getting into the stadium were part of the problem, and acknowledging that, he says, would give soccer fans a truer sense of history.

Steven Cohen says for now, his opinion is known, and he'll probably let the subject lie. But for the first time, he says he's now locking the studio door.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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