Both Snooker and Trowbridge were already in need of an image change. The game on the green baize is currently undergoing changes to try and restore the glory days of the 80s, while the County Town of Wiltshire is known for the so called “Beast of Trowbridge”: a panther like creature which allegedly stalks the surrounding area.
Neither Snooker nor Trowbridge needed Stephen Lee.
For Trowbridge is home to the 38 year old snooker professional who on Tuesday received a twelve year ban on charges of match fixing.
The 38 year old was found guilty of deliberately losing either entire games or specific frames in seven separate matches between 2008 and 2009, including one at the World Championships. Aside from his ban, Lee will also have to pay 40,000 pounds of costs.
It is the longest ban in the history of the sport, and one which effectively ends Lee’s career. By the time he is allowed back onto the circuit, he will have reached an age at which very few players can ever hope to excel. Lee protests his complete innocence, and described the ruling as “outrageous” to the BBC this week. His children, he said, have been picked on at school, and for the last eleven months, he has been “a very angry man”.
Well so would anyone be if their livelihood had been taken away from them, rightly or otherwise. Lee, though, insists he is being made a scapegoat by new, stricter measures brought in by World Snooker Chairman Barry Hearn. All the evidence of a fair trial – albeit one at which he had no professional legal representation - though, points to his guilt. A detailed 35 page report which describes Lee as “an unreliable witness” seems fairly conclusive.
Outside of snooker circles, though, this case has not made many back page headlines in the British press. It is, perhaps, a damning indictment of snooker’s current level of popularity that it took Ronnie O’Sullivan’s comments for a wider interest to really emerge. Aside from the odd snide joke about snooker having one less traditionally overweight player, few have had too much to say
Even comparisons to the John Higgins case have been tentative. Higgins was banned for six months for failing to report an approach from match fixers. The approach, it transpired, was in fact a News of the World sting. The paper, which has since gone under after being found guilty of illegal phone hacking, was, at the time, roundly condemned for its methods. Higgins, most agreed, was guilty of little more than his own naivete.
To an extent the same thing could be said of Lee. Most critics and fellow players have voiced the opinion that Lee is to be pitied as much as condemned, that he ultimately fell victim to his own financial difficulties and a lack of will power. Most share the view of Mark King, a friend of Lee’s and his opponent in one of the fixed matches.
“Stephen is a lovely fella. I feel sorry for his family but as a player I have no sympathy for him” said the 39 year old.
Indeed, it is this personal sympathy which sparks the only real point of debate in this case: namely the length of the sentence. Had Lee not committed the offences prior to the regulation changes, he would have received a life ban. Some, like world number three Judd Trump, feel that such sanctions are the only answer. Others are more cautious. The many high profile match fixing cases in cricket over the years, alongside tragedies such as the death of South African cricket captain Hansie Cronje, have led some to promote more leniency towards individuals found guilty of manipulation.
Whatever the view, the fact is that a twelve year ban will almost certainly mean the end of Stephen Lee’s career. The world of snooker can only hope that it marks a turning point in the fortunes of their sport.