In light of Stephen Lee’s ban for match fixing, Thomas Mitchell argues that snooker is a sport that needs to clean up its act
Since the emergence of snooker as a professional entity in 1968, organizers have stressed the credibility and integrity of a sport long associated with match fixing, gambling and cheating. With the recent suspension of former world number five Stephen Lee, the sport continues to fail to shake off the black cloud repeatedly snookering the future of the game.
Snooker finds itself in the curious position of a having a history defined by two polar opposite classes. The genesis and growth of the sport saw the upper classes and military leaders of the British Empire use snooker as a means of entertainment often at social events to impress certain social circles.
The game was a platform for the distinguished gentry to express the frivolity that was becoming of their status. The marginalisation of the working classes from the game, coupled with the rise of the pub as a communal being and the colour television era saw smaller, cheaper snooker clubs opened and, in doing so, the sport became a favourite of the blue collar, proletariat people.
Snooker developed in the same environment as games such as dominoes, darts and Aunt Sally. The nature of these games as part of the pub and leisure culture inevitably drew links to gambling. The great divergence of class interest in the sport left snooker in a position of almost inevitable vulnerability to the vultures of cheating and manipulation. The professionalisation of the sport only saw the stakes get higher and the vultures draw nearer.
Lee’s recent controversy is the latest in a long line of misdemeanours and corruptions seemingly haunting the sport. In a bold, if drastic attempt to nullify the demons of the game entirely, the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA) has imposed a 12 year ban on the 38-year-old.
At this point in his career, Lee is unlikely to return to the professional circuit and almost certainly will not reach the heights of his 2000/01 and 2003/04 fifth placed world rankings.
The allegations date back to 2008 and in the following four years, Lee was found guilty of match fixing in seven separate matches with three further matches also investigated. The independent tribunal also judged in September that Lee was to pay costs of £40,000.
Despite calls for a lifetime ban from certain sections of the media and within the sport, Lee’s age and the growing competition in the sport suggests that he will find it nearly impossible to earn a living out of snooker when aged 50, a major financial blow considering Lee has already amassed over £2 million in career winnings so far.
The five-time tournament champion is rumoured to be considering an appeal, but given the severity of the ban, the WPBSA seem to be making an example of an incident that has plagued the sport for decades.
Pioneer of the sport, Joe Davis, a man viewed as an all-time snooker icon, was himself reported to have manipulated the direction of particular games in order to generate excitement and income to the growing sport in the 1930s.
As the game has grown and developed, match fixing has continued to be a trend within the game. The clean-cut image of the players, the strict obedience to the umpire’s decisions and the utmost importance of the respectful nature of the crowd have enhanced the image of the game.
The world of snooker was rocked in 2006, when Australian Quinten Hann was proven guilty of agreeing to lose to Ken Doherty in exchange for, or in solicitation of, large sums of money. An eight-year punishment was imposed upon the man who was ranked 22nd in the world at the time.
It was the suspension of John Higgins that deeply damaged the brand. Ending the 2009/2010 season as world number one, Higgins was caught agreeing to, or failing to report, the transfer of money in exchange for manipulating the result of a game.
Although he was not found guilty of directly match fixing, Higgins was suspended for six months and fined £75,000 for giving the impression that he would be willing to breach the rules and indeed accept a financial gain in doing so.
The Scotsman has since returned to snooker and his position as world number one, but his reputation, and indeed the reputation of the sport still bears the scars of his actions. One heckler even labelled Higgins as a disgrace to the game during his victory over Mark Williams in 2011.
The act of match fixing, if notoriously hard to prove, is still deemed rife in the dark catacombs of snooker’s murky underbelly. In the aftermath of Lee’s ban, Ronnie O’Sullivan claimed that there were many more similar incidents in the game. Before his death in 2010, Alex Higgins claimed that, in his prime he, and many others were repeatedly the subject of efforts to throw competitions.
With the widespread condemnation of Lee from many within the sport, including Barry Hearn and Judd Trump, plus the severity of the ban on one of the game’s higher profile players, there is reason to believe that snooker will be able to break away from the demons that have plagued the sport. Let’s hope the next generation of table talent will represent an altogether cleaner frame of competition.