Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Integrity in snooker: empty pandering or meaningful measures?

When the John Higgins scandal erupted some months ago, I tried to keep an open mind and honestly hoped it was all a misunderstanding until I watched the video and heard some of the details of the case. It was very disturbing evidence, but even then I hoped for everything to turn out alright in the end, even if there was a good chance that he truly intended to carry out the promised match-fixing.

Flash forward a few months and Higgins' manager is banned from the sport for life (even though he had already resigned from his position on the WPBSA board) and Higgins gets a backdated six month ban and a £75,000 fine.
Then Barry Hearn, the recently-appointed chairman of World Snooker, appears on BBC2 today talking about the new anti-corruption unit being set up as a preventative - rather than curative - measure against betting fraud and match-fixing.

He was asked what role Higgins will have in this new light, and responded by basically saying that he would serve as an example to other players of how dangerous it is to give in to that temptation and appear to agree to dodgy deals without reporting them, especially now that there'll be some official, private channels for doing so. He also stated that Higgins made a silly mistake, by trusting people he shouldn't have, and was heavily punished and that £75,000 isn't pocket change.

That was a mistake, I think. For someone like Higgins, a backdated six-month ban and a £75,000 fine is chump change, especially when Hearn followed up those comments to assure of the seriousness of the new regime by saying "we're talking about lifetime bans here".
If we're talking about lifetime bans, Higgins got away very lightly and you should really acknowledge that. Why not just say something like "the case with Higgins could easily have ended up differently and he might have received a very lengthy or indefinite ban. But now we're drawing a line and making it very clear what you can and can't do, and specifying the penalties for breaking those rules"?

Another player, Quinten Hann, was handed an 8 year ban a while back, for agreeing to lose a match in the China Open. However, he resigned before the ban was decided, and never had a squeaky clean image to begin with. Also, his highest ranking was #14, where John Higgins has been #1 for a while and is one of the most consistent players in the game.
What if Higgins was a much lower-ranked player of less fame? Would he have been banned for longer (or even forever) and fined less?

What worries me is that much of the assurances about "hard measures" might be concerned more with convincing the public with tough-talking "draconian" plans than with actually stamping out corruption - that Higgins' real mistake was to get caught. But I'm still glad to see Higgins back in the game - it'd be such a shame for a master craftsman to be officially banned from his craft forever. I just hope that Hearn and the rest truly care about sport and its integrity rather than simply protecting the bottom line by telling the optimal story to the punters.

Oh and on a side note, I'm glad to read Hearn's comments on Ronnie O'Sullivan's odd attitude towards completing a 147 today: “I really don’t like to hear multi-millionaires talking about a few extra pounds for a 147 when that’s the game that’s given them their livelihood”.
Spot on, and a big "WTF Ronnie". Walking away from the table on a 140 break with the black on, or missing on purpose (which he very nearly did - the black nearly bounced off the table) would actually hurt the audience - remember Ken Doherty's missed black on a maximum attempt and the groans from the crowd, and try to imagine what it would be like if O'Sullivan missed one on purpose. I'd hate to be the guy giving post-match interviews with him - it seems like 15% of the time he enjoyed playing, 70% of the time he felt nothing, 80% of the time he says something really sad that makes you wonder if he hates the whole thing, himself, fans, other players etc.

But on the other hand, a 147 is still an amazing feat, even if it's slightly more common. The commentators seemed to only consider the case where there's no maximum break prize versus a £147,000 prize. Why not have a token but still half decent prize for a maximum - let's say £14,700 - which a) would not be sniffed at and b) would be separate from the high break prize, so that getting a 147 gets you a tangible reward. The amount isn't really important, as long as a maximum is distinguished from a high break of 145 or whatever.

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