MDJ and how the sport advanced this week

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James Overstreet

This week Mark Daniels Jr. became the second African-American angler to win an Elite Series tournament in the course of two weeks – as well as the second-ever. Ish Monroe, who’s been on the Elites since the beginning, or 2006, was the trailblazer in each category.

MDJ’s victory would’ve been a big deal regardless of color. He’s a star on the rise, by all accounts a skilled technician who understands the big picture. While I’ve only worked with him once, every media personality I’ve asked about him, as well as every other angler who has offered an opinion, has been unfailingly positive in their assessment of the 36-year-old, second-year Elite.

In 2018, I’m sure most of us would prefer that race not be an issue. Of course, the fish don’t know the color, gender or political opinions of the person on the other end of the line, but regardless, at the Elite level our sport has long been entirely male and largely white. You could say much the same thing for the upper-level influencers throughout the game. The Helen Seviers (early B.A.S.S. CEO and owner) are greatly outnumbered by men, and the percentage of African-Americans at the top is also very low. I don’t think that’s due to any sort of institutionalized racism, but others might disagree.

Nor do I know whether MDJ and Ish have experienced prejudice in the industry, on the road, or from their fellow competitors. I have not discussed matters of race and prejudice with MDJ, and when I’ve brought up the topic with Ish his response has always been that, “There’s only one color that matters in bass fishing, and that’s green – the green of the fish and the green of the money.” Of course there is racism and sexism and prejudice in our subculture. I’ve seen and heard it firsthand on more than one occasion, but none of us is qualified to objectively state whether it’s less than, greater than, or about the same as in the rest of society, or in similarly-situated industries.

Nevertheless, in addition to being the second African-American angler to win an Elite Series tournament, Daniels is one of two to ever fish the Elite Series. There has been minimal representation from Hispanic anglers, very little from American-born anglers of Asian descent (though there are three Japanese anglers among the Elites), and few foreign anglers from countries other than Japan (though Carl Jocumsen of Australia recently competed on the Elites, as did Jon Bondy of Canada, Charles Sim competed in the 2016 Bassmaster Classic and Gerry Jooste from South Africa has competed in five Classics). Several other foreign anglers have competed in the Classic through the B.A.S.S. Nation Championship, which attracts clubs from all over the world. No woman has yet qualified for the Elite Series.

That’s why, for whatever reason, we should celebrate this as the best kind of “Tiger Woods moment.” If presented correctly, and respectfully, it breaks down any barriers – real or imagined – to Elite participation from people from all walks of life. Woods, you may recall, described himself as “Cablinasian,” a mixture of Caucasian, Black, American-Indian and Asian. He would’ve been a transcendent figure for the sport no matter where he was from, what he looked like or how he talked. In his heyday he was that good. The fact that he was not trained on country club courses, or in the ways of the country club lifestyle, made his story (despite its later fallout) all that much more invigorating. 

There were already Asians and African-Americans and American-Indians playing golf long before Tiger won a major, but when Tiger played, large swaths of the population who otherwise didn’t give a damn about golf paid close attention. In the same vein, if you pull up to any bass club weigh-in around the country, you’re likely to see competitors who resemble Takahiro Omori or Ish almost as often as you’ll see people who resemble Skeet Reese and Kevin VanDam. At the 2016 Bassmaster Classic, I wrote about collegiate champ Trevor Lo’s Hmong background, and when the story was posted dozens of members of the Hmong community commented on social media about how proud they were of him and how much they appreciated the story. While some of them might already have followed the sport, many clearly did not. Trevor was their gateway.

It’s not necessarily that people only root for people who look like them, but if up until now you’ve never seen anyone who looks like you accomplish a particular task, it can be hard to imagine that happening. Neither Ish nor MDJ has had to go through the struggles that, say, Jackie Robinson endured, but that doesn’t lessen the importance of their accomplishments, nor does it mean that there hasn’t been some pushback.

No one who has been watching closely over the past decade can seriously argue that there has ever been a greater collection of bass fishing talent than the current Elite crop. You only need to look at the Hall of Famers and world-beaters in the bottom quartile of the Toyota Angler of the Year standings to see that it’s no longer possible to just be good or even great and still make the Classic every year. But if the quality of the competition is going to continue to increase at this incredible rate, we’ll have to be sure that all corners of society have a meaningful opportunity to compete. Right now the next KVD, or Skeet, or Aaron Martens, or Ish, or MDJ might not even know that bass fishing exists.

Look at how the talent pool in the NBA has deepened as the result of the NBA’s concerted effort to promote the sport worldwide and you can easily see a template for what can be accomplished. Indeed, the collegiate and high school fishing programs that B.A.S.S. operates may mirror this template by exposing more young anglers to the sport, and it already seems to be paying dividends in terms of bringing in talent from a wider variety of backgrounds.

I hesitated to write this column because if taken the wrong way it cheapens MDJ’s victory. He won it because he found and caught the right fish, nothing else. His race played no role in the matter. I’m reminded of the media scrum before the 1988 Super Bowl when the Redskins’ QB Doug Williams was reportedly asked “How long have you been a black quarterback?” It was later shown that that particular question was not indeed posed to him, but he got more than his share about the general topic. Some of them were silly, and the reporting detracted from his MVP performance, but on the other hand, as we examine the intersection of sport and society, the topic of race was an important one then as it is now. Even a cursory examination of why there had been few black quarterbacks led to a conclusion that there had been all sorts of both intentional and unconscious barriers to their success in that role. Football, like fishing, is a sport best enjoyed when the most talented and motivated players are on the field in the roles that they fulfill the best.

As a sport under siege from decreasing access, the lure of screen time, and anti-fishing activists, it behooves all of us in the fishing industry to work to have the most inclusive tent possible. MDJ was likely only concerned about his own success in this event – not carrying the burden or hopes of any group larger than his family – but intended or not, he brought the Elite Series one step closer to being the best that it can be.