Discipline disappearing in graceless pursuit of fortune

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The Independent Online

There was a time - and it seems a lifetime away though it was no more than 20 years ago - when sporting idols could still be relied on for comportment that singled them out as fully developed adults who appreciated the good things that had happened to them.

There was a time - and it seems a lifetime away though it was no more than 20 years ago - when sporting idols could still be relied on for comportment that singled them out as fully developed adults who appreciated the good things that had happened to them.

In some cases (as with many memories), the legend may be more endearing than the truth but the further you go back in the history of sport 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 reason why sport today has no decent ethic that can discipline games and is beset by one furore after another, it does not entirely explain a decline from standards that were once considered normal.

For example, flicking with idle curiosity through the television channels one night this week I came across a boxing contest that immediately excited my attention. It took place at Madison Square Garden 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 as one of my heroes, I followed every move, taking particular pleasure in his superb balance and punch selection. But it was the bearing of both men at the end of an extremely hard 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 an arm around Canzoneri's shoulders, 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, all claiming association with the participants and eager to be seen on television.

Incidentally, there was a lot more to Ross than the skill and spirit that brought 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 severe 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 that Ross would have found difficult to comprehend?

For in the early days of what is known in journalism as the "silly month" we are being dazzled not so much by great feats of sporting prowess but by amounts of football money that the Pope has described as "obscene, an insult to the poor".

From being the most gracious and unforgiving of games, golf is embroiled in the ongoing squabble sparked by quite unnecessary revelations in a book ghost-written for last year's Ryder Cup captain, Mark James. If this week's decision by the European Ryder Cup Committee to force James's resignation as vice-captain to Sam Torrance for next year's event at The Belfry was not based on the unavoidable suspicion that James exploited a rift between him and Nick Faldo, it should have been.

You can go on and on like this. One damn controversy after another. Only a week ago, the Football Association announced punitive measures to deal with the harassment of referees and the frequency of conduct prejudicial to sporting order and discipline. Yet, following trouble between the players of Everton and Blackburn Rovers in a pre-season friendly last week, the FA announced that there was not a case to answer and will hear an appeal from Everton against the dismissal of their new signing, Thomas Gravesen.

Nobody turned a hair. Indeed, the way many people speak and think about sport today, you get the uncomfortable feeling that they have been brainwashed. That in the great rush to applaud the self-adoring sports millionaires of a new age they would not identify Barney Ross as a true champion.

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