To Catch a Cheat

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During my junior year of high school my English teacher was a loudmouthed bully with an abrasive style who seemed to favor kids who could give it right back to him. I wasn’t confident enough in my own abilities to enter the daily fray, and while my reading comprehension and writing abilities helped me to muddle through, it was a deflating experience.

I spent the next couple of decades looking back on that year with regret and anger. First I was ashamed that I hadn’t been fully engaged. Then I gradually realized that to the extent that I wasn’t an active participant, that reflected poorly on him as well. He didn’t teach to the entirety of the class, just to the select few who fit his preferred student profile. I concluded that he did many of us a disservice and despite being very smart he was actually a mediocre teacher.

In 2015, 27 years after I graduated, the teacher in question died. A schoolmate who has become a very well-known and widely respected television newsman published a glowing tribute to him. “He changed my life,” he wrote.

The comments flowed in from other past students, praising the deceased teacher. From what I saw, no one had the inclination or the balls to criticize him in print. That led me to reassess my view. “Maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy,” I thought. “If everyone universally thinks he was great, he must’ve been great.”

A year or so later, I heard from a friend that a couple of years before his death this teacher had been fired for making a highly-suggestive pass at another alum’s wife. It was part of a documented pattern of inappropriate acts. Now my mental pendulum swung back in the other direction. I had been right, I decided. He was a jerk.

Telling that story to another friend, they told me that the teacher had died of a long-simmering brain tumor. Perhaps that had influenced his inappropriate behavior with the alum’s wife, my friend suggested. I could not conclude that it had, but I couldn’t decisively rule it out. These things are complicated and rarely have clear answers.

All of this flip-floppery on my part led to a late-in-life realization that people are more complicated than we give them credit for. Few of us are all good or all bad. We may even change from moment to moment. When integrating people into our lives, we’re forced to make snap judgments that the good we get from them outweighs the bad. Sometimes we’re wrong. Like I wrote above, this is complicated stuff, and few of us are objective enough to consistently make clearheaded decisions on these things.

I thought of the deceased teacher — who I still think did me a disservice, despite changing others’ lives for the better — when this week’s news about California big bass hunter Mike Long emerged. I carefully read the exhaustive allegations put together by fellow Californian Kellen Ellis. If even half of it is true, then Long has a lot of ‘splainin to do and should likely be ostracized and censured, and possibly prosecuted. The evidence presented seems pretty damning.

If Mike Long is shown to have deceived us all, as many have concluded that he did, no one will be more hurt than me. No one will be angrier than me. Yet there’s still a small sliver of me that hopes that we come across some exculpatory evidence. I recognize that’s highly unlikely, and even if he’s shown to be innocent, he’ll likely remain convicted in the court of public opinion forever. Still, more than anything, I don’t want it to be true. I’ve never shared a boat with Long, and I’m not sure that I’ve met him in person (possibly at the 2007 ICAST show, although I can’t be certain), but I’ve worked with him on multiple articles and he’s always been friendly, helpful and giving of his time. If he turns out to be a total fraud, not only will I be furious with him, but I’ll be furious with myself for having been duped. The letdown will be bigger than if I thought he was a bs’er from the start.

Even if he does turn out to be 99% villain, there’s a bit of good in everyone, ornery English teachers and cheating anglers alike. Even Ellis’ otherwise crucifying article recognizes that “[t]he fishing industry, particularly the craze surrounding swimbaits, wouldn’t be the same today if it weren’t for Mike Long.” He helped to generate interest and knowledge in a whole class of lures. He also contributed to the (generally positive) mystique of big bass hunters. If he turns out to be a lying sack of cow patties, does all of that go away? The fascination with swimbaits will still be here, and while it might have developed anyway, Long and his ilk moved it along. The widespread belief that there’s a world record swimming somewhere in California was kept afloat by the same cast of mysterious lunker hunters. Is it possible that while doing lots of bad things he also generated a bit of positive residue? That’s not justifying any bad acts, just recognizing that, you know, these things are multi-layered.

On the one hand, I hope against hope that all of this proves to be false.

On the other hand, I hope that someone is made an example of in public in a way that Tony Christian never was.

It varies from minute to minute which of my hands has the upper hand.

If nothing else, all of this negative publicity should lead any “anglers” considering such bad acts in the future to stop before they start. The world at large already considers us a bunch of liars, cheaters and beneficiaries of luck. We don’t need to help them condemn us.