Alex Higgins and the maverick dilemma

The sad death of Alex “Hurricane” Higgins, who played an important role in popularising snooker in the 1970s and 80s, highlights a dilemma familiar to many sports governing bodies: how to deal with mavericks. Higgins combined outrageous talent with wildly destructive behaviour,  endearing him to fans but causing endless trouble to the authorities.

As the obituaries point out, his behaviour went well beyond the type of clowning around or tantrums that are sufficient to label an athlete a “character” in these days of robotic professionalism. The BBC describes his “violent temper, drunkenness, gambling and [recreational] drug-taking”.

However, his popularity was not in doubt. In 1982 he was runner up in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year competition. A current star of the sport, Ronnie O’Sullivan, said Higgins was one of the inspirations behind him getting into snooker as a boy.

He was charged with disciplinary breaches almost 50 times by the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association. Among his offences were head-butting a referee and making a death threat against a fellow player.

It’s difficult to see how a sports governing body or federation can deal with such an individual. On the one hand they have to keep some kind of control over their sport; on the other, they don’t want to ban or drive away one of their most valuable assets.

Football clubs and some other professional sports are all too aware of the temptations on offer to suddenly wealthy and famous young men. Good coaches act as mentors and may have a parental-type role but at some point the athletes have to take responsibility for their own actions, particularly away from sports competition.

Governing bodies, further removed from the daily lives of the athletes, have limited options. They will probably be criticised for being too lenient, too stringent, or for exploiting players, thus exacerbating the problem. Of course, their jurisdiction is also restricted to what goes on in and around their sport.

In my view, two broad principles apply for governing bodies. Firstly, they should ensure that the demands they make of young athletes do not amount to exploitation. Secondly, there must be support to encourage rehabilitation after an offence has been committed.

Unfortunately, even fair rules and well-intentioned administrators won’t always be enough to prevent maverick individuals from self-destructing and in the end it may not be the governing body that pays the price.

The main victim of Alex Higgins’ behaviour was the man himself.

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