IT does not come as a huge surprise that the WPBSA came down relatively hard on Ronnie O’Sullivan on Wednesday. The world champion was fined £6,000 plus £1,000 costs for Twitter posts made by the 38-year-old, including some swiftly retracted comments on the subject of Stephen Lee’s match-fixing conviction for which O’Sullivan issued a formal apology.
And it seems that the sanction was predominantly for these, rather than the other tweets about using pills to enhance performance or another referred to only as “offensive”. These were adjudged to be breaches of the WPBSA members’ or players’ rules, while the additional £1,000 fine for “abusive, insulting and disrespectful” language towards senior referee Jan Verhaas was judged a breach of the players’ contract.
When O’Sullivan suggested that Lee, whose appeal against a 12-year ban starts on January 30, was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to match-fixing he made most senior figures in the sport see red. They immediately asked O’Sullivan to effectively name names, and put up or shut up, and a retraction and formal apology quickly followed.
World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn, WPBSA chairman Jason Ferguson and others spend a large proportion of their year circumnavigating the globe, being polite to dignitaries, glad-handing at opening and closing ceremonies and trying to set up the events and bring in the sponsorships that pay the players’ prize-money, not least to O’Sullivan who claimed another £200,000 at the Masters.
Hearn is generally thick-skinned, very much of the “all publicity is good publicity” school of thought – except when it comes to match-fixing and the integrity of the game. Discussions were ongoing in October with various potential sponsors, including it is understood more than one interested in supporting the biggest tournament of them all, the World Championships at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield.
The comments, and the insinuation that the WPBSA might sweep such things under the carpet, were damaging to those discussions, leading to Ferguson, out in China at the Shanghai Masters and normally a reserved political operator, angrily stating that O’Sullivan’s comments “could cost the game millions of pounds”.
The game’s leaders were especially aggrieved about the idea that they would hide wrongdoing, having already spent a vast amount of time and money on the Lee case to try and ensure the sport was clean and seen to be clean, with more costs now to come on the appeal and even at this stage a possible retrial, and no guarantee of retrieving those costs already awarded against the former world No5.
The WPBSA’s Integrity Unit has stated it will act promptly on any information received in confidence about wrongdoing, but what the O’Sullivan case shows once again are the perils of broad-brush, sweeping statements of opinion as fact on social media without also producing the hard evidence to back it up.