WITH the announcement on Thursday that his appeal against a 12-year ban for match-fixing had been thrown out, the game certainly looks to be up for Stephen Lee.
It has been an extraordinary fall from grace attracting banner headlines from even organs of the media with no regard for or interest in snooker.
This was, in the words of governing body the WPBSA, “the worst case of corruption we have seen” in an era when match- and spot-fixing are seen as a modern curse in sport.
The basic facts about the player’s pedigree and the seven matches in question are well known and bear only a brief recap. Lee, now 39 and from Trowbridge, was the ‘Fourth Man’ to turn pro in 1992 alongside the golden trio of Ronnie O’Sullivan, John Higgins and Mark Williams.
Despite that weighty competition he still won five ranking titles, reached No5 in the world rankings, and acquired a reputation as one of the finest cueists in the game.
But Lee, who enjoyed an extravagant lifestyle during his big-earning days, saw things start to go wrong in February 2010, when he was arrested and bailed on cheating charges following a West Midlands Police and Gambling Commission investigation.
In October 2012 the CPS revealed they would not be pressing charges, at which point the WPBSA launched their own probe with some of the information now available to them. In February 2013 Lee was charged with eight counts of breaches of the betting rules, one of which was later dropped.
And in September of that year Lee was convicted by an independent tribunal set up by Sport Resolutions and chaired by Adam Lewis QC on seven counts of fixing in 2008 and 2009, including one match at the World Championship against Ryan Day. There was a 12-year ban, and initially £40,000 costs.
Lee claimed Lewis was biased having done other work for World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn connected with his football club Leyton Orient, but this was thrown out at the first appeal stage.
Lee has not gone quietly this week, reacting in angry fashion on Facebook in the immediate aftermath of the appeal rejection decision being made public.
In a publishable précis of his remarks there were attacks on Hearn, Integrity Unit chief Nigel Mawer, and the WPBSA.
Lee also indicated he would go to the High Court as a next step, and threatened to publish a book. “Names will be in there as I'm now going bankrupt, so try and sue me all the best,” he said.
Neither of these courses of action can be entirely ruled out, but there are serious obstacles to either ever happening.
The count on costs awarded against Lee is now £105,000 and possibly rising, with further financial penalty still a threat from the last stage of the appeal. He will have his own bills on top. As if this was not enough, Lee was charged with fraud earlier in May over the sale of a snooker cue.
Lee has been through several lawyers already in the match-fixing process. The reasons for those splits has not been made public, and a barrister represented him ‘pro bono’ at the first stage of the appeal, but he may be running out of legal options with resources now at a premium.
The book is another question entirely. Lee and representatives attempted to hawk round his story as a one-off interview to newspapers. He started off asking for £15,000 and upwards. Even with the price dropping, there were no takers.
What Lee must overcome there is that once you are a convicted cheat, your credibility is hugely damaged. He may well have a good story to tell and sell that would titillate and intrigue, but any publisher is going to think long and hard before printing any allegations he may have about others in snooker. The potential for libel suits is very high, and Lee’s stock as a witness is currently low.
In another move that seems hard to understand given a career and means to supporting a young family at stake, Lee went in to the original hearing with no legal representation, accompanied only by former manager Neal Clague.
Lewis found both Lee and Clague to be “unreliable witnesses”, and first appeal tribunal chairman Edwin Glasgow QC later on stepped down because he had “formed an unfavourable impression of Lee”.
The Higgins case was very different in many ways, not least that the Scot was never convicted of any match-fixing and does not have that stain on his character. His ban of six months was for failing to report an approach. But for his tribunal and with a career worth big money on the line, Higgins threw the legal kitchen sink at his defence, with a PR team also in tow.
Lee has cited the lack of “evidence” against him on more than one occasion. Was there a smoking-gun email saying ‘I fixed all these matches’? No, there wasn’t. But in such cases, the money trail increasingly is the evidence, and will continue to be so.
If Lee’s legal strategy raised eyebrows, the same could be said of the way he dealt with the media. It should be stated that before Lee was first investigated in this matter, and even for years after, the player’s relationship with the press and media was good. That changed only when he was suspended from the tour in October 2012.
The impression given by Lee was that reporters merely stating the facts – ie that he had been suspended and later charged – were now the enemy. Calls from the written press and BBC were from that point on not answered or responded to. At times this made the story difficult to cover, but the opportunities to speak were continually put to Lee and his friend and then manager Adam Quigley, and continually rejected.
On the only occasions Lee broke cover, his views were faithfully reported by media organisations. When door-stepped by the BBC after his conviction, his words were included in reports. And following his interview on talkSPORT radio station, the same occurred – with a whole page in the Daily Express, as just one example, devoted to ‘his side’, principally claims that he had been the victim of wrongful process and a conviction with “no evidence”.
Instead rather than use vehicles that would have connected him to millions, albeit with scrutiny and fair reporting of both sides, Lee and his associates chose to pass on aspects of his case to individuals in the snooker community, who often circulated these views sympathetically and in the main unchallenged to a relatively small audience, but an important one to the player.
When the news of Lee’s conviction first filtered around the players overnight and into breakfast at the Shanghai Masters last September, surprisingly few put the boot in to the man who had so tarnished their profession and a proud sport.
There was sorrow for his situation as a family man and father of four, a glum recognition of another spate of negative publicity for the sport, even surprise and shock from players involved in the matches in question. Lee had been a popular figure with many on tour.
But the true legacy he leaves for now is one that his former peers and rivals cannot be happy about. It is the renewed and widespread repetition of jokes and guffaws that whenever an easy ball is missed, the match is ‘bent’. Whenever a player snatches defeat from the jaws of victory, instead of being viewed as sporting drama it is a ‘fix’, when invariably that will be far from the truth.
The Lee case has done huge damage to snooker both within the sport and in the wider world, only offset by the fact that at least the authorities are visibly trying to do something about it, and prepared to spend – even lose – enormous sums of money cleaning up the game.
It will take the players left on tour years to fully shake off the stigma, especially among those who only engage with snooker to knock it. Happily the vast majority of the playing cast look up to the task.
Stephen Lee latest – June 3
On Tuesday Nicholas Stewart QC, the second independent chair used on the appeals tribunal set up to hear Lee’s appeal, awarded a further £20,000 costs against the player. This took the total to £125,000.
Already banned for 12 years Lee has 28 days to either pay the £125,000 or come up with a payment proposal and repayment plan. Failure to do so would almost certainly result in permanent expulsion from the WPBSA until such time as the debts were cleared, with the Association at liberty to try and recover the monies owing.
Photographs by Monique Limbos