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A pair of ESPN specials Tuesday were more about spectators than players, and both were wholly captivating must-sees
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The Malones pay around $5.54 a month for ESPN, same as you and most everyone else who subscribes to pay television. We watch it very little, which means we subsidize a lot of households where every last SportsCenter/college basketball/Monday Night Football/Sunday Night Baseball game is consumed. My wife wields the remote most nights, which means plenty of Game of Thrones, American Idol and Mad Men. When sports is watched, it’s the Mets on SNY or occasionally WPIX.

The wife and the kids are out of town due to school vacation week, so I was looking forward to some binge sports viewing last night alongside my formerly frozen pizza and my beer. Alas, the Mets were playing late on the West Coast, and the Yankees—like my father, I watch them to root against them—were rained out. And I don’t have MLB Network since switching to Verizon FiOS, a service that’s increasingly driving me mad with its notion of reverse a la carte; MLB is but one of many seemingly basic cable channels exempt from my mid-price package.

While no games were watched, I nonetheless ended up with a heavy, and very satisfying, sports night on ESPN. TheE:60 segment on the Boston Marathon bombings called Dream On, narrated by Ben Affleck and Tom Brady, absolutely floored me. It was well produced, free of cliché, heartfelt but not mawkish, completely captivating and, yes, tear-inducing. Repeatedly. So well done was Dream On that I actually enjoyed the final bit, which featured Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, along with a children’s choir, performing “Dream On.” And I normally can’t stand Steven Tyler and Aerosmith.

That led into the brilliant 30 for 30 documentary Hillsborough, on the death of 96 Liverpool soccer fans at a semifinal match at a neutral ground called Hillsborough 25 years ago to the day. (What a day for John Henry, owner of the Boston Red Sox and of Liverpool FC.)  

I care slightly more about English soccer than the typical American, primarily because I studied for a bit in Liverpool a year after the tragedy that killed so many of the city’s fans (“studied” may be misleading, but I was enrolled in a university there for a semester). I loved Liverpool from day one because the people were just so damn warm and funny; I wondered if they were intent on counteracting stereotypes about a fading manufacturing city whose residents had a reputation for booze and for uncouth behavior.

Those stereotypes became the crux of the documentary—that the police, and the press, speciously said the tragedy was a result of drunken Liverpool fans’ loutish behavior.

A lady in one of my classes at the time addressed me after class and asked if I’d been to a Liverpool football match. I told her I preferred rugby (I’d been playing a few years in college) and she scoffed and told me rugby was a “poofter” sport.

Named Beryl, she told me to wait outside my dormitory Saturday morning with the other American in our class, and her husband would pick us up for the match.

The husband showed up and we folded our long American legs into his Mini. We went to the pub with him and his two young sons; the boys drank barely alcoholic “Shandys.” We walked to Anfield and stood in the standing end zone area known as the Kop. It was about half as full as it used to be before Hillsborough, the husband told us, which I could not comprehend; so jammed in were we that I remember small children being passed overhead to the aisles.

Beryl, meanwhile, sat with the ladies in the more civilized midfield seats.

The family’s generosity floored me: The husband of a woman I’d met for five minutes paid for our tickets and our drinks, because we simply had to experience the local cultural institution known as Liverpool football.

We finally connected with Beryl after the match, which had been against Manchester City. We went back to their home, a skinny rowhouse in a working class neighborhood. She made us dinner and kept sending the boys up to the top floor for more cans of lager.

She also told us about her husband and sons attending the match a year before at Hillsborough, then her watching the disaster unfold on television, not knowing if her family members were among the dead until some hours later, when her husband finally connected through a pay phone. She referred to her boys as “our James” and “our Paul”; they were all James and Paul in Liverpool.  

Finally, maybe 12 hours after he picked us up, the husband dropped us off—full, drunk, happy and, finally, versed in Liverpool culture.

Directed by Daniel Gordon, the documentary’s footage of the football ground that day, getting more and more and, ultimately, shockingly crowded as kickoff approached, was chilling. The recollections of police who were on the scene that day, and unwittingly involved in the ensuing cover-up, was moving. The site of mothers at Lime Street station in Liverpool, looking for their husbands and children with the arrival of each new train and discharge of passengers, was heartbreaking. So was the testimony of one woman who identified her dead son in a gymnasium under the stadium, and was not allowed to touch the boy. “I brought him into the world and I just wanted to see him off,” I believe she said.

Phil Scraton, who wrote a book on the tragedy and was a key figure in an investigation that, decades later, exonerated the Liverpool fans, is the most insightful of the pundits. “The price of Hillsborough is not reducible to 96 people dying,” he says. “The price of Hillsborough is the price of institutionalized injustice, the appalling treatment by some of the media of the good reputations of innocent people, the cavalier way in which wonderful people were vilified. That’s the price of Hillsborough.”

One glitch stood out, and only because I am an editor and writer: The word “documentary” misspelled repeatedly on screen in a warning about the violent and disturbing nature of the footage. How the heck did that happen?

My other complaint has nothing to do with Hillsborough or ESPN. It was the on-screen box that popped up around every 20 minutes during the special, FiOS pushing me to shell out more money for ESPN in HD. That’s not the way to do it.

Those distractions aside, both specials were brilliant, and the Malones easily got our $5.54 worth last night.

I have one more night before the missus reclaims the remote again, and frozen pizza and beer waiting for me at home.

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