Ken Jones: Comradeship of champions lost in age of false idols

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The Independent Football

There was a time - and it seems a lifetime away though it was no more than 25 years ago - when sporting idols could still be relied on for comportment that identified them as fully developed adults who appreciated the good things that had happened to them.

In some cases, the legend may be more endearing than the truth but the further you go back in the history of games the more likely you are to come across behaviour that could be held up as an example to the next generation. If money has to be the main reason why sport today has no decent ethic and is beset by one controversy after another, it does not entirely explain a decline from standards once considered normal.

For example, flicking with idle curiosity through the television channels over the holiday period I came across a boxing contest that immediately excited my attention. It took place at Madison Square Garden, New York, in September 1933, when Barney Ross successfully defended the world lightweight and junior welterweight titles against Tony Canzoneri, from whom he had taken them three months earlier.

Being a sucker for old fight films and counting Ross among my heroes, I followed every move, taking pleasure in his superb balance and punch selection. But it was the bearing of both men at the end of an extremely punishing fight over the old championship distance of 15 rounds that set me to thinking about things that have changed to sport's detriment.

At the bell, before his victory (a majority decision) was announced, Ross threw a comradely arm around Canzoneri, engaging him in amiable conversation. They did not leap on the ropes and were not raised shoulder high by their handlers. That only a handful of people occupied the ring was another big difference, because today there is a throng claiming association with the participants and eager to be seen on television.

Incidentally, there was a lot more to Ross than the possession of three titles at three different weights before his retirement in 1938 after losing the welterweight championship to Henry Armstrong. In 1942, Ross (real name Beryl Rosofsky), who was born in New York and raised in a Chicago ghetto, enlisted in the US Marines. Decorated for bravery in the great action at Guadalcanal, where he saved 12 comrades by single-handedly wiping out a Japanese machine-gun nest, he became addicted to the morphine used to ease the pain of his wounds. Ross's greatest battle was vividly described in an autobiography, Monkey on My Back, later made into a movie starring Cameron Mitchell.

Do I sense the suppression of a yawn, the shoulder-shrugging of a generation raised on values Ross would have found difficult to comprehend? For in the early days of a new year we are being assailed not so much by great feats of sporting prowess but examples of disorderly behaviour and betrayal. From Australia came the news that Pakistan's wrist-spinner Danish Kaneria had been given a severe reprimand and fined his match fee of around £6,000 for swearing at Michael Clarke in the third and final Test against Australia.

I read about this while digesting comments prompted by the referee Mike Riley's controversial refusal to award Liverpool a penalty during last week's match against Chelsea, ruling that the Chelsea midfielder Tiago had not intentionally handled the ball. Lost in the great debate over the introduction of television technology was the behaviour of Liverpool's Jamie Carragher, who was so incensed by the injustice that he followed Riley to the door of his dressing-room to register further protests.

You can go on and on like this. One damn controversy after another, not least Robbie Savage's attempt to engineer a transfer to Blackburn Rovers six months after signing a four-year contract with Birmingham City. Savage is betraying those of his predecessors who fought to win the benefits he now enjoys. Technically, he is many rungs lower in class than George Eastham, whose stand against the Football League brought about an end, in 1961, to the iniquitous retain-and-transfer system that prevented players moving freely at the end of their agreements.

Not a word about Savage has been heard from the chief executive of the Professional Footballers Association, Gordon Taylor. Nobody has turned a hair. Indeed, the way many people speak and think about sport today, you get the uncomfortable feeling that they've been brainwashed. That in the great rush to applaud the self-adoring millionaires of this sporting age they would not identify Barney Ross as a true champion.