Sports have the singular ability to both divide and to bring together. Within a community, a sports team galvanizes, but also separates us from other communities. They give us something to identify with, and by doing so create a distinction between supporters of rival teams. This can be especially apparent with teams that are geographically fairly close to one another, such as the Yankees and the Red Sox, or in the United Kingdom, Everton and Liverpool. But every once in a while something happens that brings these rival faction into a state of unity.
In perusing the internet over the last few days, there have been two different stories related to sport that have sent me into an emotional state. The first is the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy in England, and the second is the 1st anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing, both tragedies that have brought together people across the world in support of two cities.
As my friends and readers of this blog know, I have adopted the English Premier League football (or to my American friends, soccer) club, Liverpool. Many of my American friends might not be aware that Liverpool experienced a tremendous tragedy on April 15, 1989. Some of you might have vague memories of hearing about an incident that took place at an English soccer game, in which 96 fans lost their lives when they were crushed by fellow supporters. I always remember hearing this incident mentioned as evidence of the madness of European soccer fans, an indictment of football hooliganism. This narrative has long been used to ascribe blame to the very people who were victims of the tragedy, despite evidence of police culpability in the events of the day. The last 25 years have seen the families and those touched by the tragedy struggle to find justice for the 96, a fight that has only recently started to yield results.
During the matches of the last weekend, all of the games in the Premier League schedule honored the victims of the Hillsborough disaster with a minute of silence before the match, setting the tone of solidarity among the clubs. Naturally, the most emotional of the tributes was the one that took place at Liverpool’s stadium, Anfield, for the Liverpool vs. Manchester City match. Tuesday, April 15th, marked the anniversary of the tragedy, and one of the most poignant tributes that I saw was this speech from Everton (Liverpool’s crosstown rival) head coach, Roberto Martinez.
This moving tribute from a rival coach shows the way that sport can unite, even among those that it normally divides.
On the same day that those across the Atlantic were honoring the victims of one sports tragedy, Americans were remembering the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing that took place one year ago. Although the families of the victims haven’t been subjected to the same form of long-term torture from their public officials, the true pain of these tragedies will always be in the actual lives that were lost. In much the same way that people in England have rallied in support of the victims of Hillsborough, people in America have rallied around the city of Boston. During last year’s Major League Baseball World Series, even those who don’t support the Boston Red Sox baseball team could not help but feel some measure of support for the city of Boston.
For the supporters of Liverpool, their theme song and chosen motto of, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” has taken on new meaning in the post-Hillsborough world, and for the people of Boston, the phrase, “Boston Strong” has been a testament to the resilience of their community following the bombing. For those of us in other parts of the world, sport has given us a venue to show our support for communities that are 100s, and even thousands, of miles away. During these times, we become part of the same community.