Minister must start to punch his weight

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The Independent Online
PARLIAMENT is not renowned as a terminus for the buck, and among the heavy responsibilities that flew through the place unimpeded last week was the old and vexed problem of boxing and its distressing habit of inflicting death and disability on the nation's sporting conscience.

Not that the death of Jim Murray following his collapse in a Glasgow ring last weekend was ignored by our political leaders, but calls for a ban on the sport or at least a commission of inquiry into the care it takes of its participants were dismissed by the Minister for Sport, Iain Sproat, who felt that boxing "is a terrific sport and it would be a great shame if this tragic death were to weigh too heavily".

We have learned not to wait around with buckets \ready to catch the wisdom that flows from holders of this particular office; nevertheless, we were entitled to expect a slightly more profound and helpful reaction to a situation that is bringing increasing discomfort even to boxing's staunchest supporters. Perhaps I do the minister an injustice. He may have used the description "terrific" in its original meaning as capable of causing terror. I fear, however, he used the word in its colloquial sense as would a teenager describing a favourite pop song.

I am not at odds with Mr Sproat in his desire to save boxing from being banned, but any defender of the sport has to take the growing opposition to it very seriously. To find boxing fascinating and to admire the skill and the courage of those who take part either at amateur or professional level should not render anyone unaware of its many blights. It does the sport no favour to acclaim it unreservedly or to compare its inherent dangers with those attached to other physical activities.

As a participant, for instance, it is not a sport you can enjoy being bad at. You can be a hopeless golfer and love being out on the course. You can be a knock-kneed and badly co-ordinated tennis player but as long as you seek out others with similar deficiencies there's pleasure to be had on the court. You can happily while away half your life playing poor football, ragged rugby and pretty horrible hockey but any future you envisage as a less than competent boxer is liable to be very short and painful.

Boxing is a progressive sport, with a built-in incentive for its participants to improve themselves, and its disciplined environment makes it a fitting pursuit for boys. The amateur game has an important contribution to make, especially in inner cities.

But it is upon the professional game, a far less wholesome scene, that the official eye ought to be trained. This is why a more constructive contribution was required from Mr Sproat, who, at the very least, should have have offered some ministerial muscle to the British Boxing Board of Control, the body which controls the professional game in this country but which gives the impression of being its servant.

The board has yet to comment on the latest blow to its sport but would seem to be in urgent need of assistance in the shape of statutory back-up. It is expected to come forth this week with recommendations aimed at more effective protection for boxers. Under consideration are such measures as any fighter knocked out or stopped having to wait 45 days before boxing again, instead of 26 days at present; any fighter knocked out having to spend the night in hospital; more sophisticated brain-scanning equipment; and a more stringent examination of those struggling to make the weight before a fight.

The board is without doubt the most responsible body in world boxing, but it is constantly being brow-beaten by those forces in the sport prepared to threaten litigation for restraint of trade at every turn. A few governmental guidelines would not go amiss. The sadness of Murray's death tended to divert attention from the sickening riot that followed his bout. Inadequate stewarding has been a feature of boxing promotions for the last decade and ought to be closely supervised.

With pay TV about to descend on us, the promotion of boxing is not going to suffer for lack of finance. We should ensure that enough of it is directed towards the safety of the boxers and those paying to watch them. As much as one detests government interference in sport, this will be possible only with official backing. Perhaps we have a wider responsibility, for this is yet another sport to which we gave shape and substance, via the Marquis of Queensberry. Notwithstanding the posturings of the Eubanks of this world there is still honour, a nobility even, in being a boxer and of all the images of last week there was none more touching than that of Murray's parents, who recognised that their son derived much from the sport that was to kill him.

We all have to recognise that what turned Jim into a boxer was a fact of our society from which none of us can turn away. Perhaps there will come a time when life will contain opportunity for all to be happy, self- sufficient and fulfilled without having to contemplate such a hazardous way of earning a living. Meanwhile, part of the reason to want to ban boxing is to forget what makes most boys box.

SHOCK waves continue to rumble through both codes of rugby as they struggle to cope with implications of freedoms that have come too fast. It is hardly credible that in the same year that he scored that spectacular drop-kick in the World Cup in June, Rob Andrew's international rugby career should be abruptly ended.

I won't be the only one to regret his decision, or to wish that others could have acted with as much regard for the game. Such is the mess that the Rugby Football Union has caused by its petulant refusal to come to terms with professionalism that nobody seems to know where they are. Can it be that the RFU will make as confused and clumsy an attempt at being a professional sport as they did at being an amateur one?

Neither are there many signs at the Rugby Football League of a tranquil conclusion of a century spent as the discriminated-against game that at least had the satisfaction of being honest. They spent too long as poachers to appreciate the problems of gamekeeping and view with horror the number of their players who fancy a turn at union now that those despised barriers have been torn down. Despite the fact that league is to be played in summer and union in winter, they don't appear to cherish the prospect. Could it be that they'll ban their players from playing rugby union?

BIRMINGHAM seem unable to avoid controversy. They are in trouble for over-charging for tickets and, more bizarrely, because their managing director, Karren Brady, is accused of making an illegal approach for Stoke's Paul Peschisolido, who happens to be her husband. This has never happened before in 125 years of football history. Is a wife not allowed to discuss her husband's career prospects with him without being accused of making an illegal approach? Brady can expect the heartfelt sympathy of the many husbands who have spent years making unsuccessful legal approaches to their wives.

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