IT would be nice if the soccer tragedy in Sheffield, England, last weekend had a few simple, easily identifiable causes. Fingers could be pointed, adjustments could be made, and the problem would be solved. But it's not that easy. Authorities in Britain - which is especially sensitive to the problem of soccer disorder because of the number of incidents in recent years involving British fans - have made large strides in reducing the causes of these horrific events.
Some of the deaths in the past have resulted from alcohol-fueled melees between supporters of opposing teams. So the police have cracked down on liquor consumption in the vicinity of matches and have devised better ways to separate fans. Other deaths, including the more than 90 fatalities Saturday, have been due to overcrowding and faulty crowd control: Authorities have attempted to mitigate these conditions, as well.
Ironically, Saturday's match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest showcased some of these improvements. The match was held in a neutral city; a large number of police officers, including some on horses, were present for crowd control; and reinforced barriers had been installed to confine unruly fans. Yet even with all these precautions, disaster struck.
Surely, crowd-control methods can be made better still, and the official inquiries into the incident will probably produce sensible recommendations. Ironically, the reinforced barriers appear to have intensified the crushing pressure that built up, and their usefulness may need rethinking. Stadium design more broadly should be reexamined.
But there are deeper underlying causes for these disasters. They won't yield to procedural tinkering, but they can't be ignored. One is soccer's almost unique place throughout much of the world as a lightning rod for pent-up working-class frustrations and grievances. Another is a general rise in boorishness and hooliganism by fans at many sporting events, including American football and baseball games.
Sport is of great worth as a human activity. But it's a rickety structure on which to displace the consequences of various kinds of economic and social dysfunction. Government and sports authorities have to reckon with this fact.