Long Story, Bro

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One of my fraternity brothers cheated his way through college. Truth be told, it was the least of his transgressions — had he not been perhaps the school’s greatest wrestler to date, his fighting, belligerence towards campus security and other drunken misdeeds might’ve gotten him kicked out long before graduation. In moments of clearheaded sobriety, though, he worked on various schemes to game the academic system. 

Some were simple, like looking on someone else’s test or “borrowing” a paper that another student had previously written, but others required great effort — crib sheets and hours of pre-planning to ensure that he’d have the necessary information at his fingertips at the right time.

A week before he graduated he addressed a bunch of us to defend himself. “I know that most of you think that I’m dumb,” he said. “But I’m leaving here with the same degree that all of you have. I guess that makes me at least as smart as all of you.”

Putting aside for the moment the notion of learning for the sake of learning, or how it might help you in the future, he was right: He had the same degree and hadn’t cracked a book to get it. Nevertheless, one of his implications was wrong. He seemed to believe that he’d gotten that degree with a lot less effort. As one of his classmates later opined, “He spent more time figuring out how to cheat than he would have had to spend to get the same grades honestly.”

After reading the exposé of Mike Long prepared by Kellen Ellis, and watching the video of what certainly seems to be a set of horrible acts, I can’t help but wonder why Mike Long didn’t try to do things the right way. Between the snagging apparatuses and the secret squirrel after-dark missions and possibly hidden compartments in his boat, he seems to have spent a ton of time devising mechanisms to cheat and to deceive. Had he done things through honest effort, I highly doubt he would have been able to claim as many tournament wins and teen-class trophies as he did, but he might’ve had some fishing success on a more limited basis. What did he get out of all of that cheating? Some money, to be sure, and while I have no idea what he made cumulatively through tournament winnings and sponsorships, I have to think that with that level of cunning he could’ve done better with an hourly job somewhere, or if not then by deceiving on a playing field more lucrative than local tournaments (Hello Bernie Madoff). If it wasn’t for the money, were the magazine covers and adulation enough to justify all of that effort? I can’t imagine that they would be for me, or for anyone who’s not a complete psychopath, but maybe I’m missing the point.

For 20 years I fished in a club where we conducted catch-measure-release tournaments (i.e., paper tournaments). We drew partners at random for each event, and your partner was supposed to verify your measurements. Were there people who occasionally fudged things by moving the nose of the fish or manipulating the tail a certain way? Probably, but I’m confident that most competitors did not. Maybe that makes me naïve, but I can’t see the point of cheating in a tournament where top prize is a hundred bucks. Even if it’s more about bragging rights, I’m still not sure what inspires someone to cheat at any level. Is your life really so barren and accomplishment so meaningless that you can live with that false sense of superiority? If the money isn’t life-changing, the fame is illusory, and the chance of getting caught is solid, why do it?

Obviously a lot of people don’t think about it that way, because we see evidence of cheating every day — in sports, in business, in life. In some contexts, we even celebrate it, like the venerated spitball pitcher or the offensive lineman who “gets away with holding.” I think the money to be made might matter to the Mike Longs in every industry, but the compulsion to cheat goes further than that. I’m baffled by it.

Based on the spirited reaction to the blog I wrote about Mike Long last week, the topic inspires more that a little vitriol from those affected by it. As I stated then, and still believe, once Long is proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to have cheated and stolen — and it appears we’re pretty much there — he should be penalized and prosecuted to the maximum extent possible. Nevertheless, I’m still left wondering what’s best for those of us left behind. The mainstream sports media and society as a whole knows next to nothing about tournament fishing and trophy bass hunting. To the extent that they report on us at all, it’s usually in the context of some sort of scandal like this one, which effectively means that by association the rest of us are presumed to be cheats and liars.

So we’re left with a Catch 22: Either publicize the hell out of Long’s actions to punish him adequately and deter other bad actors from doing similar things in the future, and we risk confirming the overwhelming narrative that the sport is not legitimate; or let Long slide into oblivion (like we seem to have done with Tony Christian and a host of other cheaters) and fly under the wider radar (also known as the “They can’t do that to our pledges, only we can do that to our pledges” approach).

Again, based on the comments I saw and the messages I received, the popular will seems to be pitchforks and gauntlets, or some other sort of bamboo-under-the-fingernails vigilante justice. I can understand that — when the sport is that important to you, and you feel that the rug is ripped out from under you, there’s a tendency to want to torture someone who ruins one aspect of honest competition.

I can see why people are so angry, and since I wasn’t one of the ones directly impacted, I might not be the best representative of the overall feelings, but what I mostly feel is sadness — sad that we have reached a tipping point where we can no longer assume that any exceptional bass fishing achievement is legit. We’re no longer even at a level of “trust but verify.” Instead, there is now a widespread presumption that almost any great catch is a fraud until conclusively demonstrated otherwise, a nearly impossible standard of proof. That’s a sad thing for the sport as a whole, and since Long’s long shadow will eventually fade away as time goes by, we’re more than likely ripe for more disappointments in the future.