World Soccer Daily Debacle: The Ugly Side(s) of Football
Over the last several months, World Soccer Daily (iTunes) found its way onto my phone a couple times per week on average. Though I found hosts Steven Cohen and Kenny Hassan too self-satisfied, they often had excellent guests and passionate callers. And where else could someone from the states find 90 minutes of footy coverage every weekday?
By now, anyone who’s heard of the show has heard about Cohen blaming ticketless attendees for the Hillsborough stadium collapse that killed 96 fans. That happened back in April. LFCNY and other Liverpool fan groups organized a boycott of his shows and pressured advertisers to do the same. It worked — he was fired from FSC’s “Fone-In” show in July, and on Friday they announced the cancellation of World Soccer Daily.
But there’s a lot more to it than that.
Ugliness #1: Topic taboo
As an American liberal, I’m skeptical of any topic being “off-limits” for discussion. The way Hillsborough is treated in the soccer press reminds me of the way US media outlets handle 9/11: the only permissible comments are those of reverence or sadness. I understand why tragedies evoke this response, I just feel uncomfortable about it because it can be difficult to learn from something without examining it.
Ugliness #2: Cohen’s agenda
That said, Cohen wasn’t doing much examination. The official report evaluating the disaster, which Cohen claimed to have read, states that the number of ticketless fans was insignificant and did not contribute to the disaster. So maybe he was confused, or just didn’t understand, right?
In October of 2008, he gloated on WSD about chanting ‘murderers’ at Liverpool fans during a match. Getting caught up in the moment at the game is one thing, but to gloat about it afterwards suggests he takes at least some personal pleasure in blaming Liverpool fans for Hillsborough.
Ugliness #3: Free speech and the “apology”
The official boycott was pretty clear: feeling that Cohen had an agenda, LFCNY and others contacted advertisers in this way:
To whom it may concern,
You advertise on either or both of Steve Cohen’s shows on Fox and Sirius. Steve Cohen Soccer News Topics has, and not for the first time, told lies about the deaths the 96 fans at Hillsborough, claiming that Liverpool fans were responsible for killing their own, amongst other lies. Is this the type of person you want representing your company? Steve Cohen has done this before, apologising when the outrage grew too large. Clearly, he will not stop, so our objective is to see him being put off air permanently.
I urge you to reconsider your purchasing of advertising.
I will be boycotting all your products and services until your support for Steve Cohen and his lies ends.
He’s insensitive, he’s wrong, and I’m sure he lost listeners, but, personally, I don’t find his commentary worthy of a boycott. That said, I don’t know anyone involved in Hillsborough, I wasn’t following soccer then, and I’m not even from the country in which it occurred. If others want to boycott, they’re certainly welcome.
Cohen refused to modify his position for some time, but as advertisers like Heineken began to pull out of his programs, he eventually issued an apology a month after his comments. In it, Cohen invokes the idea of freedom of speech to defend his actions:
Let me continue by saying that I came to this country 27 years ago. I believe in this country and what it stands for, and most importantly I believe in the freedom of speech, opinion and expression, and hold these values and freedoms as being amongst the most treasured of all freedoms.
I wore the uniform of the U.S. Army for four years between ’82 and ’86 because these freedoms are worth defending and worth fighting for. While there are many people in this world whose views make my blood boil [yeah, I know what you mean, Steve], I would fight to defend their right to say what they believe.
Whether you agree or disagree with the boycott, everyone should be able to agree that it is not an assault on Cohen’s free speech. Free speech implies that anyone may say anything they like to whomever they like without reprisal from the government. This means that while Cohen has freedom speak his mind on Hillsborough on the radio, people who disagree with him have the right to speak their mind to advertisers and networks. *That* is free speech.
Beyond the disingenuous implication that he was being censored, the month-long delay between event and apology casts doubt on its sincerity. Does anyone really apologize 4 weeks later if he’s doing anything more than responding to pressure from advertisers and program directors?
Furthermore, Cohen’s apology came with the call to “put this crap to bed,” and he audibly crumpled up the paper as soon as he finished reading the apology. Few people who truly want to put something to bed (crap or otherwise) would react this way. Surely he had to know these actions/comments would mitigate any impact the apology might have made.
Ugliness #4: Threats against Cohen
No matter how you feel about what someone says, it’s never okay to threaten them. From Cohen:
I want Christopher Harris to also know that his stories that he’s published, OK, have led to me getting emails from people in the UK… talking about kidnapping certain children, and not releasing them until I make a public apology on TV. … If my house gets burned down, or I get stabbed or killed, which is what I keep getting emails about… he’s going to have it on his shirt, he’s going to have it on his blood. And I’m being serious.”
Unforgivable behavior from the threat-makers. Cohen also said he received a lot of anti-Semitic hate mail, which is equally disgusting. It’s a shame that when some people hear something they don’t like, their response amps up the bile a thousand-fold. How can any individual call for an apology about a Hillsborough comment if he just physically threatened someone or lobbed racist insults?
Ugliness #5: World Soccer Daily’s threats against others
A guy nicknamed Tony New Mexico started the Facebook Group Putting Steven Cohen Straight and was a key figure in the boycott effort of Cohen. Understandably, Cohen cursed him privately, but publicly he and Kenny Hassan went too far:
As co-host Kenny Hassan brags about giving away a Vespa scooter he says, “…whilst Tony New Mexico stays at the Hampton inn in Las Vegas, we know where to find you” Steven Cohen then chips in “Yes indeed, we do know where to find you.”
Cohen also sent a private email to Tony about his wife’s birthday, arguably to intimidate Tony by showing he knew personal information about him. Combined with threats form other Cohen supporters, he contacted the FBI. They felt there was enough merit to open a case file and investigate.
Once again, how is it okay to respond to someone with whom you disagree by threatening them? If you admire Steven Cohen (or are Steven Cohen), what makes you think “we know where to find you” and/or emailing death threats makes you a better person than the people threatening Cohen? Certainly Cohen’s comment on air following a public marking of Tony New Mexico destroys any credible claim of sympathy he might have had. Sadly, after the show’s cancellation, World Soccer Daily posted personal email links to Tony and others.
Ugliness #6: The Final Shout-Out
Liverpool fans weren’t the only people disowning Cohen, a Chelsea FC supporter. Gareth Mills, an official spokesperson for Chelsea, stated:
We have distanced ourselves and will continue to distance ourselves from any comments that disrespect the memory of Hillsborough.
We can see no benefit of giving him legitimacy by the club singling him out. Giving Mr. Cohen oxygen is the worst thing we could do. He is not a representative, nor ever has been a representative of the club. We have some 90 million fans worldwide and cannot account for every fan’s opinion.
On his way out the door, Cohen stated:
“It’s not a happy friday, and let me explain what’s happening here… in the last 24-48 hours my step children have been contacted, friends have been contacted through various avenues on the internet, so today I’m here to tell you that today is the last World Soccer Daily. Hate wins, anti-semitism wins, rage wins, and I’m not going to put my job through this kind of firing line any more. Hicks and Gillette are a disgrace, Peter Kenyon (Chief Exec of Communications), Simon Greenberg (Chelsea FC Director of Communications), you’re a disgrace. This is a country based on freedom of speach, freedom of ideas, freedom of business, freedom of a lot of things, but the hate and the threats and the anti-semitism that has been raging from the liverpool contingent for the last 5 months, for me it’s over… it’s a sad, sad day, I think, for football in America… and for freedom of everything…”
Once again, threats like those received by Cohen are heinous and unforgivable. Once again, it’s wrong to equate a boycott with a destruction of free speech. Once again, it’s pointless to attack people like Chelsea’s Director of Communications on your way out the door. Surely he had nothing to do with the threats, so why would Cohen take a swing at someone who did exactly what he did (aka speak his mind)? Ugly ugly ugly.
Ugliness #7: The reactions.
I like Dan Loney, but there’s too much sinister glee in this post for me not to wonder if he has it in for Cohen. Of course, the comments immediately descend into a bunch of name-calling, finger-pointing, free speech misstatements, and other messes.
Then you have reactions like those from Toffeeweb, an Everton blog. After railing against the loss of the show, he somehow manages to put blame at the feet of the actual Liverpool team with this final line:
I despise Liverpool Football Club.
The first comment on the post drives home that feeling even more:
That is really pathetic… but pretty typical for Liverpool fans.
In the immortal words of Amy Poehler: Really? Really. It makes about as much sense to blame Liverpool or the bulk of its tens of millions of fans for this as it does to blame Sirius radio and people who listen to Cohen’s show for his comments. But there’s real hatred between some football fans and their rivals, and any excuse to let it out will do. Blech.
To recap, we have ill-informed and insensitive comments from a host with a track record of them. We have a boycott that may have been a bit overblown. We have death threats and racial slurs against the host. We have the host threatening and encouraging others to threaten a boycotter. We have free speech freakouts. We have fans spewing hate at other fans.
One thing is certain: the demise of World Soccer Daily won’t be soon forgotten.