Ronnie O'Sullivan is set to land himself a big fine after making rude outbursts during an interview at the 2008 China Open. O'Sullivan had just lost his First Round game 5-4 to adopted favourite Marco Fu, from Hong Kong. He was doing the obligatory post-match press conference at the time.
O'Sullivan has had a notoriously controversial history. Over the last 16 years as a professional, he has struggled with depression and many other mental problems. His father was imprisoned at a young age, and observers may feel that this helped contribute to his mental fragility.
In this interview, he grew impatient at the questions that were asked, not because of the content, but because of the length of the question when spoken in Chinese. It then had to be translated into English by a translator. He then made the rude comments. The questions were very poor, repetitive, and the English was of a low quality. This may have increased O'Sullivan's frustration.
Fortunately for O'Sullivan and snooker, his comments were in English, talking to someone at his side who remains out of shot of the video. Snooker in China is a growing market, and fortunately the media did not pick up on the comments, do to the language. The press in China therefore praised the otherwise gentlemanly content of the interview.
However, when the interview was streamed into the eyes of the British public and media, more controversy was caused. Sir Rodney Walker, the Chairman of the World Professional Snooker and Billiards Association (WPBSA) has released an official statement on the World Snooker website. He describes O'Sullivan's comments as "unacceptable", and states that his behaviour is under review by the WPBSA Disciplinary Committee. He has apologised to the Chinese on behalf of O'Sullivan.
Walker is in a difficult position, however. O'Sullivan has been fined before, and after a long history of behavioural problems, Walker's patience will be wearing thin. O'Sullivan was fined in December 2006 for walking out of a UK Championship Semi Final when 4-1 down to Stephen Hendry, a match that was best of 17 frames.
O'Sullivan is the game's strongest attraction, single-handedly filling seats with his style of play and unpredictable nature. He is deemed "The People's Champion." Too leniant a punishment and he sets no precedent to the other professionals in the game. Too harsh, and and O'Sullivan could walk away from the sport, which will have implications such as reduced crowds, and lower sponsor support. The WPBSA has a tough task to get the right balance.
The situation is identical to that of Alex Higgins.
Higgins was banned from the sport for a year, but then returned to play at the 1994 World Snooker Championship, but he was unable to get back to his previous standard. Higgins outburst of "let's see how well you do without me" has endured, as snooker has never been as popular as it was in the Higgins era.
It is a difficult decision for the WPBSA. O'Sullivan is still only 32, and could realistically be a top draw in the sport for another decade. O'Sullivan may not carry on that long, but the WPBSA will realise that keeping him in the sport is important for everybody involved in it, but something needs to be done to improve his temperament.
Personally, I do not think the image of snooker has been lessened, or that O'Sullivan's behaviour was that bad. His comments were unnoticed by the Chinese due to the language difficulties, and he has requested to stay out of interviews in the past, because he claims "opening my mouth gets me into trouble." A case of "I told you so." Either way, this incident was not as bad as his walking out of a match, and I think that the WPBSA should be leniant with their most important player. I'm interested in the person alongside Ronnie, as he remained out of shot of the video, but would presumably be a WPBSA represntative, or a tournament official. He surely must have had some role in pointing out to O'Sullivan of his duty to act professionally during the interview.
It will be interesting to hear from the result of the committee, with the World Championship starting in three weeks time.