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Notes on two scandals

September 9, 2010

A tarnished reputation? -

Three-time world snooker champion John Higgins was yesterday banned for six months and fined £75,000 for bringing the game into disrepute. Crucially, though, he was cleared of match fixing, an allegation contained in May’s News of the World story which claimed he agreed to throw frames in a tournament later this year in exchange for cash.

Those allegations cast a shadow over the World Championship final earlier this year, but Higgins will now return to action in November (the punishment was understandably backdated since Higgins was suspended when the story broke). He does, though inevitably emerge from the court battle with a stain on his reputation, however innocent he may be. The NOTW investigation (or set-up, depending on your viewpoint) included a damning video in which Higgins and his manager Pat Mooney – permanently suspended by the WPBSA as a result of the story – unwittingly supped celebratory champagne with the journalists after brokering the deal. It seemed, at the time, a cut and dried case.

But of course agreeing to fix a match is not the same as fixing one, and so we will never know whether Higgins would have gone through with his plan. He failed to report the approach, which in hindsight looks suspicious – though is it perhaps plausible that he was waiting to return from Kiev, where the meeting too place, before alerting snooker’s governing body. In failing to reject the approach in the first place or failing to report it before the story broke, he committed at best a grave error, and at worst had the intent to commit the worst crime a sportsman can commit within the game. If the paper had waited until after the event before publishing, Higgins might have been in serious trouble – or of course he may have refused to go through with the agreement, alerted the WPBSA and emerged with his reputation enhanced. We’ll never know.

The timing of the hearing ensured the rigging of sport remained constant on back pages across the country, coming ten days after the NOTW broke the Pakistan cricket ‘spot-fix’ allegations. Again, a video adds credibility to the story; though the players accused are not present and the individual (alleged) offences are not as serious as in the Higgins case (bowling a no-ball to order are extremely unlikely to affect the outcome of the match; throwing frames may well do) this is probably more serious because the events actually took place. Sport was, seemingly at least, cheated.

A still from the incriminating Higgins video - newsoftheworld

Considering the News of the World’s one-man crusade to cleanse sport by paying players to fix matches would make for an interesting study of the workings of the media, though they would argue that they were only exposing what already goes on. This has more credence in the case of the Pakistan cricket team, which has long been embroiled in scandal, but would also be justifiable in the snooker story, especially given the comments of the late snooker star Alex Higgins, who said in May: ‘I know of at least four pros who have taken big bribes to chuck games. The names would shock the public if it was proved they were on the take. Just because they wear crisp white shirts, it doesn’t make them clean.’

Some may feel John Higgins got off lightly; others that the episode is over and he has been justly punished for a mistake. In preparation for the inevitable investigation – and probably disiplining – of the Pakistan players though, it is worth considering just what should be done with players who agree to take money to act in a certain way on the field.

As argued already, this is the most serious crime a sports star can commit. Taking drugs is of course more common, or at least being found guilty of it is. This is serious, but often judged based on a particular governing body’s own rules; some people can take performance-enhancing drugs by accident, through a medicine. Often it is debatable whether a drug has enhanced a player’s performance at all. There is, if no moral justification, more doubt involved. Either way, it is often dealt with stringently, when proven. However, agreeing to fix a sporting event is more concerning. Over the last week much has been written about how it eats at the fabric of sport, the essence of competition and the desire to believe in the sincerity what we are seeing. All of this is true. And anyone agreeing to ensure a result created not out of human endeavour or human error is committing an unnacceptable – perhaps unforgiveable? The ICC will have to decide – offence. Surely they should be banned for life?

In the case of the cricketers this is a little more complex. The bowlers Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir did not, it seems, try and fix a result. They bowled with pace and swing, and in their two summer series they have been a pleasure to watch, as discussed on The Videprinter during the Third Test. If they wanted to ensure their side lost the match they could have simply not bowled as accurately. While this may still tempt Kevin Pietersen to get himself out given current form, the majority of England’s top order would not consistently succumb to poor line and length and so would likely create reasonable totals to defend.

Should we make a distinction, then, between fixing a small, probably insignificant event – spot fixing – and fixing a match? Maybe not. It is still cheating the sport for personal gain. And yet is it as serious as throwing a match? Not really.

Mohammad Asif leaves a meeting into spot-fixing - Yahoo

Should we judge players based on their seniority? The accused captain Salman Butt and bowler Mohammad Asif have both played plenty of tests and would be considered among the experienced players within the camp. Mohammad Amir is an 18-year-old fledgling bowler, who may have felt under pressure to accede to the demands of his superiors, especially – as Michael Atherton among others have pointed out – giving Pakistan cricket’s hierarchical system in which the youngster may feel he has little choice. This is a difficult call. It seems right to condemn a young player for having the mendacity or stupidity to follow through with the plan – but wrong to truncate his career based on two no-balls.

Nasser Hussain said that his first thought upon hearing the story was ‘please don’t let it be Amir’. That was also my initial response when hearing the BBC News on the Saturday night. For my part (and presumably Hussain’s), this was based on a love of watching him play, hoping he hadn’t tarnished this by defrauding his teammates, the opposition, and the paying public. But it was Amir, and, if found guilty, he must be punished. Atherton argued – quite persuasively and with good reason – that we should not rush to condemn him, given his youth, his early poverty, and the lack of money Pakistan players receive compared to those from other test-playing nations. Yet none of these three factors excuse him or should absolve him from punishment. It would be a tragedy to remove such an exciting player for the game – but if removing him stopped future greats from corrupting the sport, it may be a price worth paying.

Few people seem as concerned about Butt and Asif; the former’s the captain and the latter’s got previous (he has been twice banned for taking drugs). Removing them from cricket would be nowhere near as damaging for the game as losing someone of Amir’s quality. But if found guilty, the three of them will have effectively committed the same crime – it would surely be injudicious to spare one a life ban. Not though, perhaps, as injudicious as sparing all three.

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