Rocket Ronnie snookered by fixing row but sport still in the frame

‘It doesn’t matter what I believe, it only matters what I can prove’

Ronnie O’Sullivan: climbdown to Barry Hearn over tweets

Ronnie O’Sullivan: climbdown to Barry Hearn over tweets

Mon, Sep 23, 2013, 06:00

Ronnie O’Sullivan has found out the embarrassing way how a rock ’n’roll “calling it as I see it” attitude is all very well when propping up Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood, but it doesn’t insulate you from the consequences of goading authority.

Ronnie O’s climbdown to snooker supremo Barry Hearn over those “I’ve heard there are many players out there throwing matches . . . I just love putting it out there . . . nothing like a bit of transparency, no need to worry if you’ve nothing to hide . . . no free speech” tweets was as inevitable as a Woody bum note.

And of course those original comments on the back of Stephen Lee’s match-fixing were outrageous, scurrilous, all very tut-tut. What was he thinking, tarnishing everyone?

And they were all of that, and more, but what they were mostly was naive. You see, what O’Sullivan has now learned is what every callow hack quickly finds out when standing at the crossroads of putting stuff out to the public, or taking a detour to the High Court.

Tom Cruise, of all people, put it best when playing a shiny lawyer in A Few Good Men: “It doesn’t matter what I believe, it only matters what I can prove.”

And in a game where it requires only a fraction of a millimetre or an imperceptible twitch to make the ball deviate crucially, the futility of trying to back up an argument based on “I’ve heard . . . ” was all over O’Sullivan’s subsequent grovelling retraction.

All of which doesn’t mean Ronnie was delusional in his original belief, or still doesn’t possess it, just that he can’t prove it. And he’s hardly alone in that.


Official complicity

Anyone with even the vaguest connection to a sport knows about less than savoury realities which pulse underneath the officially pristine surface. It can go from petty cynicism on a GAA field, which of course everybody knows is not systematic, to the big lie of international athletics where everybody knows officialdom is one hundred per cent resolutely not complicit in turning a blind eye to doping.

Indeed just as we can be sure racehorses are not pulled, tennis players are not motoring on anything bar unleaded, and footballers are not being disingenuous when kissing the jersey, we can also be sure the truth will eventually out. To suggest otherwise would be to throw around irresponsible and groundless allegations, your honour.

However, just as in doping, it is commonly accepted that when it comes to match-fixing, it is mostly stupidity that eventually catches people out. Lee appears to have been particularly stupid during his dabble with easy cash. Money was actually paid into his wife’s account, which must rank pretty high on the stupidity scale, and suggests we’re hardly dealing with a criminal mastermind here.

Maybe that will prove a mitigating factor when he finds out the extent of his punishment from the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association.

What’s interesting though is the scale of the bets involved. Apparently, three groups, organised by people close to Lee during 2008 and 2009, managed to bet more than €130,000 on exact scores and frame outcomes. Their winnings came to almost €114,000. That’s staggering stuff considering we’re always assured suspicious betting patterns are jumped on by bookmakers whose only quicker impulse is to close those rare winning accounts.

Saying that where sport and gambling intertwine, there is bound to be cheating ranks high on the duh! scale too, but that doesn’t make it any less valid. And despite all the official posturing, brave words and noble aspirations, it still seems reasonable to assume that unless a paper trail can be established, and/or somebody grasses, proving intent on the part of a player is pretty much impossible.

There is an element of heads I win, tails you lose, about an argument which depends on the assumption that no proof doesn’t preclude something dodgy.


Pan-sport problem

But it beggars credulity to suggest that temptation and opportunity aren’t continually combining to produce some less than saintly activities.

And it certainly isn’t just snooker, even if the something of the night, back-alley caricature of the sport lends itself to tired assumptions of hookery. Tennis has had its own fixing problems, as has football. Cricket too. We’ve had warnings even from EU level about the perils of match-fixing in all kinds of sports. This is a pan-sport issue, and it could be argued that bitter experience actually now places snooker at an advantage in at least containing it.

What’s actually impressive about the Lee case is that the police seemingly couldn’t make anything stick, but the game’s authorities wouldn’t let it go, backing their integrity unit to make a case and seeing that commitment pay off in this case. Such an attitude is as admirable as any subsequent smug assumptions on the back of a guilty verdict are worrying, presuming that picking up on what appears to be some notably inept attempts on the part of Lee and company to cover their tracks means everything in the integrity garden is rosy.

By its nature, snooker will always be vulnerable to those prepared to bend the rules. A game of such nuance, which hinges on tiny degrees of geometric complexity, lends itself to obfuscation much more readily than any legal smoking gun.

How to prove intent? Or innocence? Doubting every nervous twitch is a one-way ticket to paranoia. That’s the grey area within which skulduggery thrives and only the hopelessly naive, or those with an agenda, won’t recognise the conviction in O’Sullivan’s original comments rather than the desperate arse-covering public relations spin of his apology.