Ethics Challenge: the Fisherman and the Pole Vaulter

Many readers disagreed with Ethics Alarms on its verdict in the women’s track and field tournament story, where the championship-winning pole vault was disqualified after the opposing coach complained that the vaulter was wearing a bracelet, which was specifically banned by the rules. I argued that the rule was clear and unambiguous, that the coaches had the duty of making sure each competitor followed it, and that simply pretending that the rule didn’t exist because the result of enforcing it was harsh was not an ethical option for the referees. The coach who flagged the rules was well within ethical limits by making sure that his team, which obeyed the rules, wasn’t defeated by a team that didn’t, even if the rule violated didn’t help it succeed.

Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to explain why this recent scenario, in a very different sport, should be looked at differently from the track meet, or not.

In last week’s Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament in Morehead City, North Carolina, a $1.2 million prize for the biggest marlin caught was forfeited because one member of the winning boat had failed to get a valid state fishing license.

The team on the good fishing vessel Citation thought it had won  the 52nd running of the fishing contest. When it was discovered that a mate on the boat lacked a license, tournament directors withheld the prize and spent three days deliberating with state officials and the North Carolina attorney general. Then they voted unanimously to disqualify the team for breaking the rules.

Andy Thomasson was aboard the Citation when he set a tournament record by catching an 883-pound blue marlin.
But Peter Wann, one of the ship’s mates, had purchased a license online only while the ship was going to the weigh station, after the winning catch. As is the practice at most fishing tournaments, the captain and mate on the winning team were given a polygraph examination to confirm that no rules had been broken. Wann had lied to the captain and crew about his license status, and purchased his license at the last-minute to cover up the problem. Because it was after the catch, however, it was too late. The catch was technically illegal.

Thomasson’s fish would have earned the team $318,750 for bringing in the tournament’s first blue marlin weighing more than 500 pounds, and an additional $912,825 for being the largest catch in the blue marlin division. But Wann’s lack of a $30 fishing license took it all away.

Some comparisons with the track meet:

  • Neither the illegal bracelet nor the absence of the license for one crew member in any way contributed to the success of the disqualified team.
  • The girl’s track team lost a school championship. The Citation’s crew lost a share of 1.2 million dollars.
  • Both were amateur competitions. In both cases, the default winning team had broken no rules
  • In the track tournament, the girl whose crucial vault was disqualified was the one who broke the rule. In the fishing tournament, the fisherman who caught the prize fish broke no rules.

Are both results fair? Unfair? If the fishing tournament result seems fair and the track disqualification doesn’t, what is the difference? Because the track and field team were all girls? Because they are young? Because one technicality makes sense, and the other doesn’t?

I’ll be interested in your analysis.

I think both decisions were correct, though sad.  The fishing tournament decision was less controversial, but feels more unfair than the other.

7 thoughts on “Ethics Challenge: the Fisherman and the Pole Vaulter

  1. Jack,
    If the fishing contest had potential prize money attached to it (which it did) and if money could be won by more than one team (which it could), I don’t think it’s fair to call it an “amateur” competition. Those who are paid for their athletic or others feats are, by definition, professionals.

    None of this changes the ethical situation as far as I can see, it’s simply more semantically correct ..3


  2. Are you sure, Neil? I don’t think a cash prize for a single tournament makes the participants professionals. Are all the other participants, who paid an entry fee but won nothing at all, suddenly professional fishermen because they might have earned a cash prize? If I win a poker tournament in Vegas, am I suddenly a professional gambler?

  3. I see no real difference between the pole vaulter and the fishermen. Rules are rules, and regardless of the how much a particular rule affects the outcome of the contest, it still must be followed.

    Driving 57 in a 55mph doesn’t reduce how safely I drive, it barely alters the time required to reach my destination, and (many times) it’s slower than the average speed of the drivers around me. But it’s still speeding and entitles me to a ticket from law enforcement.


  4. I guess if it’s in the rules that each member of the boat have a fishing license…which is kind of ridiculous. Isn’t “par for the course” that you don’t exceed the catch limit of your fishing license? If the mate had been a videographer… But what is “Law-Illegal” is different than what is “Rule-Illegal”.

    I’m sure the rules specify the number of participants on a boat, the size of the team, and the licensing required to participate. I don’t know why they needed 3 days to deliberate. Were the rules more ambiguous than that?

    • Why? Oh, I have no doubt but that they hated the idea of taking away so much money in prizes from the winning crew on a technicality that none of them–except one—even knew about. It seemed too unfair.

  5. First, I am going to assume that the rules of the contest explicitly require all the crew have a fishing license.  If that assumption is wrong, my analysis will not necessarily be valid.
    So here we go with my understanding of the facts:

    A crew member violated the rules while explicitly lying about his status as a licensed fisherman;
    The captain and other crew were unaware of the crewman’s unlicensed condition, and such unawareness was not a deliberate act designed to insulate them from knowledge of the fact;
    The crew member without a license attempted to purchase one ex post facto.
    The crew, by virtue of (1) above, illegally caught a fish and submitted it as a contest entrant.

    The fish, therefore, was caught illegally and they were correct to disallow it.  It is a perfectly reasonable position of any contest that participation must be lawful in order to claim the prize.
    How is it different from the pole vaulter?  In the case of the pole vaulter, it was an explicit rule of the contest that was knowingly violated by the pole vaulter.  Her participation was what was voided, not that of the entire team.
    In the instant case, the entire team suffered the consequences of a scofflaw crewman.  But they were fishing as a team, and would have shared the prize as a team, rather than as individuals, so you cannot separate his illegal actions from the legal actions of the rest of the crew. 
    The act of the mate was unacceptably unethical and he obviously knew it with his later attempt to be licensed.  But what we have here is a case of strict liability, were it a legal question.  An illegal fish cannot be a contest winner, regardless of the fairness or unfairness of it.

  6. Pingback: The Reggie Bush Affair « Ethics Alarms

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