Does snooker have a match fixing problem?
Do most other sports have a match fixing problem?
Because ever since there have been games, people have cheated at games. To have even one match a year not contested honestly constitutes a problem because the bedrock of any sport is its integrity.
Ronnie O’Sullivan today issued a broad-brush allegation that there was plenty more match fixing in snooker. If he has any evidence of this he should present it to the authorities, otherwise his actions are akin to walking past a burning house and lobbing a can of petrol through the window.
O’Sullivan is the highest profile figure in the sport and he must have known before he tweeted that his accusations would receive plenty of media coverage. They should be examined and he should be asked to explain them.
In general, players should report malpractice or suspected malpractice. Too many of them live by some daft code that says a ‘grass’ is worse than someone who cheats.
This may be true if you’re 12 years old or in The Sopranos but in the world of sport the only way to stop cheating is to root out cheats. Stephen Lee isn’t a scapegoat, he’s someone who has been shown to have fixed the results of matches. Anyone else found to have done the same should face similar sanction.
O’Sullivan would be right if he claimed snooker had been historically bad at dealing with all of this.
I recall going to a tournament in Aberdeen early in my journalistic career where I was anecdotally told the results of three matches before they were played. The prevailing view backstage was that this was all a bit of a laugh, as if the players in question were entitled to lose on purpose with no consequences.
I know of a match in a ranking event where the referee afterwards went to the tournament office to state for the record that he believed one of the players had lost on purpose.
I know of another referee who actually overheard two players arranging the result of a match in a round robin tournament. His complaint went nowhere.
It’s all too easy to be sanctimonious about the Lee case but what does genuinely offend me is that he chose to fix a match at the World Championship.
I first visited the Crucible when I was 13, starry-eyed at snooker’s theatre of dreams. I knew I would never play there but Lee had talent sufficient to be world champion. Instead, he chose to dishonour the venue, the tournament and the sport.
Let’s be clear, though: sport is not pure and never has been. Neither are the people who watch it. Every human being on the planet is a mass of contradictions and paradoxical attitudes which they employ only when convenient to them.
As we’ve seen in the spheres of politics and religion, the biggest moralisers are usually the biggest hypocrites.
Why do sports people cheat? Because everyone else does. All the time.
Does it make it acceptable? No. But let’s not pretend it doesn’t go on.
Snooker does not receive anything like the media coverage it once did, certainly in the UK. All too often the only stories the general public notices concern match-fixing, which makes the link that snooker has a problem.
Actually, it has no greater problem than any other sport. Neither does it suffer from drugs use like athletics, cycling and other sports yet to properly address this issue.
But there is a more serious problem: I genuinely think some players don’t understand why it is wrong.
Players who cheat are very often – indeed almost always – influenced by the curious collection of people with whom they choose to surround themselves. So many ‘managers’ down the years have been exposed as con-artists but players have usually been the last to see it, leading to financial difficulties and, I suppose, the greater likelihood of corruption.
The explosion in internet betting has led to greater temptation but should not be used as an excuse, any more than the captain of the Titanic should have blamed the iceberg.
The integrity unit, set up after John Higgins was caught in a News of the World sting in 2010, is the most rigorous body snooker has had for rooting out corruption, although this wouldn’t be difficult as it is the only body the game has ever had for this purpose. It is certainly a welcome step up from what happened 15 or so years ago when betting was suspended on two qualifying matches and the WPBSA’s solution was to send one of its board members into the arena to watch both matches simultaneously before concluding ‘there was nothing in it.’
Niger Mawer has been forensic in gathering evidence and presenting a case. But this case has been easier to prosecute than any that demands evidence from, for instance, Asian bookmakers. The battle goes on and it’s getting harder and harder.
As a boy watching snooker on TV, I would never have believed the players I admired could be capable of cheating. Such idealism disappeared almost the minute I began working in a sport full of great people but also operating in the real world, with its often distasteful realities.
Is snooker clean? No, not completely. Neither is any other sport or, indeed, any other walk of life.
To pretend otherwise is to indulge in dangerous self-delusion. But to hope the players of the future properly regard the sport whose fate rests in their hands is to hope that the message has finally got through: making a living from the game is a privilege, not a right. Treat it with respect.