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Thursday 13 December 2018

Tough lessons to learn if Sutherland tragedy isn't to be repeated

AT 2.55pm yesterday, Darren Sutherland's mother sent me a text that simply stated: "Got justice for my Darren, Lynda."

Darren's justice was the fact that the coroner, Dr Roy Palmer, would not, after four days of evidence, give a verdict of suicide on the young Olympic boxer's death

Instead he gave an open verdict and said he would be writing to the British Board of Boxing Control with recommendations in the hope of averting such a tragedy again.

In a statement, distributed to the assembled media on the steps of Croydon Magistrates Court in south London, solicitors James Evans and Desmond J Doherty, speaking on behalf of the Sutherland family, said: "If anything is to be learned from the tragedy of Darren's death, it should be that the support mechanisms that exist for amateur boxers should also be there for them when they begin their lonely path on the journey to professional life; the transition is difficult."

For Darren Sutherland, the transition was more than difficult, it was traumatic and tragic. The court heard witnesses describe Darren as a young man brimming with life and confidence.

But the court also heard a psychologist describe Darren as "clinically depressed", days before he died. But depression was not something those who knew Darren - especially his parents and sisters - ever saw him suffer from.

The pertinent question is, what triggered the darkness and despair?

In answering that question, the evidence of Frank Maloney and Darren's 'adviser', Declan Brennan, has plunged professional boxing into a crisis.

Destroy

Yesterday Frank Maloney broke down in the witness box.

Questioned about a note Darren wrote to him, and which he told police he found when he discovered the dead boxer, Maloney told the court he didn't have it, didn't know what happened to it, and couldn't remember what was in it.

Evidence of the Maloney note came after earlier evidence of another note penned by Declan Brennan: "Frank (Maloney) will destroy you and your family in the media, they will hunt you down, keep taking photos of you and doing articles about how you f***** up and what your (sic) doing now for yourself digging holes on a building site.

"Frank will destroy you for the rest of your life and he would be right as you were given a god-given talent to be a world champion & you will regret this for the rest of your life & you think you feel bad now, you just have no idea how bad it's going to get -- I will help you if you help yourself. Declan your pal."

Brennan preceded his note to Darren Sutherland by outlining what he stood to lose if he quit boxing:

Brutal

"£75000 + VAT to Frank, Give car back, Give flat back, £100,000 a year in salary lost for the next 2 years."

Brennan must be made to explain why he wrote such apparently brutal words and what motivated him to write them. Frank Maloney told the inquest that he told Darren that he would not let him walk away with the £75,000 contract he had signed. Darren, he told the inquest, pleaded that he would be poor. "I said that was his problem," Maloney said.

In October 2010, former Manchester United and Republic of Ireland star Roy Keane stated his own brutal truth when he described Premiership players as "just pieces of meat".

Keane was highlighting the corrosive role money is increasingly playing in changing the spirit of professional sport generally.

Darren clearly felt trapped and isolated. and was clearly losing confidence in himself. But far from digging holes on a building site, Darren's charm and intelligence would have seen him excel in the media or public relations. There was a whole new and exciting world awaiting him, even after boxing.

Legacy

We all have a responsibility to harness the memory of Darren 'The Dazzler' Sutherland who told me when he was a teenager that his ambition was to become the first Irish black world champion.

Sadly, that ambition will never be realised. But if Darren's death can force a change in thinking about the transition from amateur to professional - and the need to build in safeguards - then, Darren's life will continue to be an inspiration for generations to come.

That will be Darren's enduring legacy.

Don Mullan is an award-winning author and producer, whose book Eyewitness Bloody Sunday led to the Saville Inquiry. He was a friend of Darren Sutherland.

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