Perception Of Cheating Still Sport's Biggest Threat
Monday, September 26, 2011
The Nate Wellman incident at the Erie Bassmaster Northern Open has been a highly painful and personal experience for me considering the history of B.A.S.S., the organization I founded in 1968.
by Ray Scott
I’m surprised and disappointed that after more than 40 years of tournaments under its belt B.A.S.S. would handle this situation in such a clumsy and inconclusive manner. It is B.A.S.S., after all, that pioneered the fairest and most honest tournaments with the toughest and most comprehensive rules.
I no longer have any official affiliation with B.A.S.S. so I have no inside information, much less input about what has or is going on. But I’m certainly qualified to comment and have a unique perspective that I would like to share with other anglers who care about the sanctity of the catch in tournaments and believe in sportsmanship.
There are probably a good many younger anglers out there who might not be aware of the muck out of which the B.A.S.S. tournaments were born. Cheating was almost synonymous with fishing in 1968. We worked hard to make B.A.S.S. tournaments fair and honest, not only in the minds of the competitors, but the public at large. In the environment we carefully created, I observed how the anglers themselves purged their own ranks. Cheaters just did not fit in. I guess the anglers believed the old adage that one bad apple could spoil the barrel.
I have always said I had four big fears when I founded B.A.S.S. in 1968. They were like flames that licked at my backside: cheating, accidents, negative public image, and poor fishing resources and the environment. I am incredibly proud that in the first 20 years of B.A.S.S. these were all on the front burner. We worked diligently to address them. We became the leader in the sportfishing industry with strict competition rules, boating safety requirements, the presentation of a wholesome and clean-cut image to the public and supporting clean waters while promoting live release.
Show me another sport that has gone so far afield to improve its environment not just for itself, but for everyone. Best of all, all these causes were supported and furthered by the grassroots B.A.S.S. members.
But I have to say it was cheating that was forefront on my mind at my very first national professional tournament I held at Beaver Lake in Arkansas in 1967. It was the tournament that started it all – the prototype of the modern B.A.S.S. fishing tournament. And boy, was I scared.
Cheating scared me the most – hands down. I would wake up in the middle of the night in a sweat inventing possible scenarios. I knew that a scandal – even a hint of scandal – would sink my boat quicker than anything else. There would have been no B.A.S.S. if there had been a cheating incident. The naysayers, and there were plenty of them, would have had a field day. Even my own hometown sports editor wrote about fishing tournaments with contempt.
He was mostly right. The fishing derbies and buddy tournaments of the day were rife with cheating incidents. They had a horrible reputation. I knew I had to overcome that perception and assure anglers of a fair and level playing field if my personal dreams of professional B.A.S.S. tournaments were to come true.
The only way to control cheating was through a stringent set of rules, mercilessly enforced. So for 3 days I locked myself away in my motel room in Springdale, Ark. and pounded out the most paranoid set of tournament rules my vivid imagination could conjure up. I knew there were men who would put their livelihoods and reputations on the line to win a two-bit trophy. I had seen it myself. And I knew people could be extremely cunning. I had to assume the worst.
I totally ruled out a buddy tournament. In my tournament, partners changed every day and I wouldn’t pair partners from the same state. After the first day, I even put an observer, a third man, in the boat with the leaders. I used a non-fishing observer in the boat for many years at the Classic, usually a press representative, which helped to romanticize and personalize the new concept of pro B.A.S.S. fishing and its angling heroes. Most importantly, anglers were required to stay in the boat and in sight of each other and their catch at all times. No exceptions.
I knew with the draw tournament format in which partners are often strangers, the chances of rule-bending would be diminished. Each angler becomes a policeman of sorts. At the weigh-in, each competitor had to sign a slip testifying to the fish being caught legally. I knew this was what would separate the men from the boys. It’s one thing not to cheat yourself, it’s quite another to rat out a fellow angler. That takes true courage when, as macho men, we are socialized not to “tattle.”
Cheating scared me the most – hands down. I would wake up in the middle of the night in a sweat inventing possible scenarios. I knew that a scandal – even a hint of scandal – would sink my boat quicker than anything else.
By the time of my first official B.A.S.S. tournament at Lake Seminole in 1968, I had met Harold Sharp, who would become my second B.A.S.S. member and first tournament director. Together we tightened and clarified the rules even more. Harold may have been more paranoid than I was. It wasn’t too long before we put in the polygraph rule: by entering the tournament you agreed to take a polygraph at the request of the tournament director and abide by its findings.
Polygraphs are interesting things. I have found the polygraph rule – just by being there – is in itself a deterrent to cheating. I have also found that innocent people have no problem taking one. As a matter of fact, I have had anglers come forward and request them – even demand them – to clear up even a slight perception of wrongdoing.
That is why I was concerned that with the Erie incident, B.A.S.S. did not immediately administer polygraph tests after Joe Stois reported – a little belatedly, unfortunately – his account of Wellman offering to buy a fish multiple times. In the eyes of many, a $2,500 fine for Wellman was a slap on the wrist and an admission that something was not right. The second penalty phase only added insult to injury, but it served the primary purpose of disqualifying him from the Classic His participation there would have been a nightmare for everyone, especially for Wellman, who may well carry a tattoo on his forehead for the rest of his career.
There are a lot of losers in this story besides Wellman. The whole sport loses, from the sponsors to the pros. The new B.A.S.S. management has a rocky start after less than a year of ownership. And I can only imagine how 2nd-place finisher Jared Rhode feels.
As for Nate Wellman, I still hope he takes a polygraph for his own sake. I would gladly pay for it, although Joe Stois has already beaten me to that offer. I understand he still wants to take one himself.
Stois is the one clear winner in this incident. I have had the pleasure of talking with him and I know a straight shooter when I hear one. He is my hero and I told him so. It took a lot of guts to do what he did. He was not only scared; he hated doing what he had to do. But it was the rule. In my book he displayed the kind of integrity that built the B.A.S.S. Tournament Trail.
It took years to win the public’s trust in regard to competitive fishing. B.A.S.S. blazed that trail. But this incident is a reminder that this trust is a victory that has to be won over and over again through constant vigilance and constant, even ruthless, enforcement of rules, as untidy and inconvenient as it may be to do so. The fishing tournament world is always one scandal away from disaster.
How simple it would have been if everyone had just followed the rules like Joe Stois did.
Note: To read more about the early days of B.A.S.S. and the creation of the original rules that served as the sport's foundation, order Robert Boyle's biography of Ray Scott, Bass Boss, at RayScott.net, or call (800) 518-7222. The price is $20.