September 6, 2011
The bottom line with the recent Nate Wellman scandal-that’s-not-a-scandal is that we’ll never know exactly what happened. There are only two people – and somewhere between 1 and 10 fish – who were privy to the disputed conversation between Wellman and his co-angler and even they may not interpret what was said the same way.
To recap: Wellman, winner of the Northern Open on Lake Erie, was subsequently protested by his Day Three co-angler, allegedly for offering cash for one of that co-angler’s bass. BASS investigated the allegations, left the trophy in Wellman’s hands (along with, I assume, the Classic berth that accompanies it) but fined him $2,500 and placed him on one year’s probation (probably not double-secret probation). Is it safe to assume that any subsequent penalty during the probation period will result in an SMU-like “death penalty” for Wellman’s career or is there an incremental punishment schedule that kicks in?
If indeed Wellman is one hundred percent innocent, I hate the fact that I’m even writing this, because it becomes journalism of the “when did you stop beating your wife?” category, effectively convicting him of the crime without benefit of due process.
If he’s innocent only of saying something foolish in a manner that sounded serious, then I’d say that $2,500 is a pretty fair “stupidity tax” on his mid five figure payday, more than a slap on the wrist, but less than excommunication. Of course, the true impact of that fine may extend beyond four figures – if he’s presumed either wholly or partially guilty, it will certainly cost him tangibly in terms of fan and sponsor support, as well as more indirectly through the loss of his peers’ respect.
In other words, once the toothpaste is out of the tube, there ain’t no pushing it back in. Right now we’ve got toothpaste on our faces, all over the sink, with a dab on the mirror and a sizeable smear on the toilet seat. There’s not necessarily blame to go around, but in the infancy of the exploration of this issue, there’s not a whole lot of good emerging, either.
So my question, being a glass half full type of guy (at least today – tomorrow I may go back to a half empty mentality) is what good can come from this situation? What positives can we derive from what has already happened? If nothing good has happened so far, can we turn it into a feel-good moment worthy of an afterschool special?
First, assuming he’s telling the truth, I have to give a shout out to the co-angler who protested Wellman. He probably entered the event hoping to whack some big smallheads and instead he found himself at the eye of a hurricane. If Wellman’s actions were blatant, that’s one thing. If they were more of the wink and nod variety, it’s harder to deal with. Remember, not only was he at the mercy of Wellman’s driving skills to get back, but he couldn’t get more than 20 feet from the dude all day. If it had been me, even if I had been saving the confrontation for when we got back to the ramp, it would have been mentally debilitating to have that weighing on me all day. I remember admiring the moxie of a friend who was paired with Jimmy Houston a few years ago, and when Jimmy started railing against the involvement of Busch in the sport, my friend spoke his mind in response, and he did not agree with Jimmy one bit. To be honest, I might’ve held my tongue and stewed quietly. In a roundabout way, this is an example of the co-angler/marshal/observer system working.
Next, I’ll give some kudos to BASS. The press release related to the Wellman affair wasn’t front and center on the Bassmaster.com page (at least not for long, if ever). Nor did its title even include Wellman’s name (it was “Fine levied at Northern Open” – only a step more attention grabbing than “Fish caught at Northern Open”), so had you blinked and missed you would be forgiven if your eyes had been drawn to “KVD’s 1001 spinnerbait tips” or “Alton’s Puppy Bonanza” instead. Still, they covered it. Baby steps count. We still don’t have an official statement on Tony Christian. Then again, the 24 hour news cycle was still at about 15 or 16 hours when Tony (allegedly) perpetrated his scheme, so maybe BASS was acting in order to control damage in case the story eventually got out. Still, there have been other controversies, transgressions and conflicts swept under the rug by both major circuits over the past decade and any movement away from that trend is a step toward legitimizing tournament fishing. This, coupled with the online coverage of the Denny/JVD flare-up in Little Rock, is good for the sport. I don’t expect the ownership of a league to fully expose every detail of every such issue (look, the NBA never officially admitted that they rigged the draft so the Knicks could get Patrick Ewing, or that they forced Jordan to take a year off as punishment for his gambling problem. David Stern, if you are reading this – please do not send Charles Oakley to kill me.). That’s the job of the independent investigative media, of which there is precious little in our sport. I probably would have liked to have seen a little more disclosure from BASS in this case, but this is at least a step in the right direction.
So how can BASS make this more than one small step for fishkind? For me, this debacle crystallizes one thing: throughout the fishing world (not singling out any one circuit or trail), our rules are woefully inadequate for the complexity of the sport. Here’s what BASS had to say about Wellman’s violation:
Bassmaster Elite Series angler Nate Wellman has been fined and placed on a one-year probation due to violation of B.A.S.S. tournament rule 3(vii), which prohibits ‘suggesting to another competitor that he violate these (B.A.S.S.) rules.’
Read that carefully and tell me what’s wrong with this picture. They still haven’t told us explicitly what Wellman did wrong, because 3(vii) is only triggered when another rule is mentioned. In order to be a complete description of any violation, they’d have to determine that Wellman’s “suggestion” violated another specific rule. It’s like saying that someone is guilty of trying to commit a crime but not specifying whether than crime was burglary, murder, extortion or jaywalking. Absent the explicit mention of another section of the BASS rules, this seems woefully incomplete. Is that because there’s not a rule expressly prohibiting whatever it is that Wellman allegedly did? If so, why didn’t it fall under one of the umbrella rules governing sportsmanlike conduct?
I poked around the internet for a few minutes, trying to find the BASS rules, only semi-successfully. The closest I came was on the BASS site, where I found the “2007 Elite Series, Majors and Classic Rules,” which indeed included rule 3(vii) as cited above. You might assume that such rules are still applicable, but there are a couple of problems here: (1) by omission, the title of these rules seems to exclude the Opens; and (2) there are some sections in these rules that clearly no longer apply to the tournaments that are expressly included, notably the discussion of co-anglers. So are these rules still in effect or not? If not, are the BASS rules available to the public?
The FLW Tour rules are a little more accessible. In fact, Google “FLW Tour Rules” and they’re the first thing that comes up. Where both sets of rules fall short, though, is in their substance. It seems that every year we have some sort of major rules-based snafu (Aaron Martens winning an FLW when there’s a question about the status of his fishing license; Kevin Snider DQed after the fact over the horsepower rating of his boat; KVD and Greg Gutierrez DQed in BASS events for infractions during the practice period; and now the Wellman fiasco). That’s a part of any sport. You need only look back to the infamous “Tuck Rule” incident in the 2002 AFC divisional playoff game between the Patriots and the Raiders to realize that even when there are lengthy and seemingly comprehensive sets of rules, there will still be debate. Still, why not minimize that debate wherever possible? Right now, the FLW rules seem to have more information on what logos you can wear on TV days than they have on actual matters pertaining to what anglers do with a rod and reel. The BASS rules (or at least the 2007 rules) spill a lot of ink on the registration process, contingency programs and boat wraps, which is fine, but like those of their stepbrother FLW there’s not nearly enough about the problems that are likely to happen on the water.
I suppose an argument could be made that the leagues can’t foresee every new issue that’ll emerge, but I don’t buy it. There are all sorts of things that can be anticipated and determined ahead of time. A little bit of certainty will go a long way. For example, BASS has been to California multiple times and in each case has enforced the rule that to be a legal catch in that state a bass must be hooked in the mouth. Yet if you saw the TV show of the 2010 Clear Lake event, you know that Byron Velvick hooked a fish on the tip of the lip, apparently neither truly inside or outside of the mouth, and had to call Trip Weldon to get a ruling. Trip made the matter as clear as mud by simplifying things: He said something along the lines of “it’s either in or out” and left Byron (who clearly didn’t know the answer) to make that call. Why wasn’t there a drawing in the rules of what constitutes “in” and what constitutes “out,” much as the Major League Baseball rules might define and illustrate what is “in” the strike zone and what is “out” of the strike zone? Even if they hadn’t anticipated that question (which begs the question, “Why not?”), what stopped them from adding a rule or explanation after the fact from addressing it? Rules don’t need to be static – you can fix, mend and alter them as you go – but they need to be thought out and as definite as possible.
Speaking of Major League Baseball, Google “Major League Baseball rules” and it will take you to 123 pages of hyper-specific descriptions of how the game shall be played. Look up “NFL Rules” and the first search result is the NFL Rulebook, which “has been prepared to aid players, fans, and members of the press, radio, and television media in their understanding of the game.” Click on it and you get a fricking encyclopedia of what seems like just about every possible outcome, possibility and on-field act. By comparison to these tomes, when it comes to rules the fishing world is dealing with the back of a soggy napkin.
I suppose it could be argued that the major ball-sport leagues have more resources at their disposal to assist in rulemaking efforts. Of course that would be correct, but it doesn’t excuse a failure to fix the problem. You could also argue that those sports are more complex and susceptible to specific rulemaking than tournament bass fishing – in that case, you would be wrong. Given the complexity of our waterways, our equipment and the impact of changing technology (and general sneakiness) on the fishing landscape, I’d say we have even more to legislate about than the more mainstream leagues. Furthermore, it’s even more important that we do so – as the Wellman situation points out, while co-anglers/marshalls/observers can enforce some of the rules some of the time, they’re a sorry excuse for a true referee or umpire. The logistics of the sport make it unlikely that there will be a true ref/umpire watching the action in every boat, so it’s even more imperative that we have regulatory certainty. Unlike professional baseball, football or basketball, where every moment is watched by spectators and officials alike (and then rewound, rewatched and analyzed more than the Zapruder film), most of the key moments in professional bass fishing go unobserved by anybody. You can’t legislate ethics or morals, but you can take the guesswork out of it.
If anything positive comes of this Erie fiasco, it should be that the tours put together expert committees – inclusive of league officials, anglers, expert legislative drafters and other potentially interested parties – and work on developing a meaningful rulebook for the first time in the sport’s history. That committee should remain standing, ready to make this an iterative and constantly-improving process. There’s no guarantee you’ll manage to figure out everything on the first try, but that doesn’t excuse not trying at all.
UPDATE: My friend John Robinson pointed out that if you go to the Opens page on the Bassmaster.com website, there is a link to the Open rules at (http://www.bassmaster.com/sites/default/files/imce/Opens_Rules_2011.pdf). MEA CULPA