Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Keep Your Heroes. We Don't Want Them.

Slash Dog with Real Dogs. Alva at Nude Bowl on that fateful night, by Andrew Hutchison

The culture of skateboarding is largely built on hero worship. In this way, skating is not unlike conventional spectator sports. Pro endorsements are the prime mover of skate products, and the deeds of pro skaters dominate the media we consume. Still, even in an era where pros can earn seven figure incomes, the relationship skaters have with their pro "heroes" is  fundamentally different from the relationship adoring sports fans have with theirs. In fact, it makes me wonder whether the term "hero" has any place in skateboarding at all.



When I was 16, Tom Knox was my skate "hero". I had a Tom Knox board. I had a bag of Tom Knox tricks, the Tom Knox shirt. I pretty much had the Knox segment of Speed Freaks playing on a loop in my mind every time I hit the streets. Nevertheless, when popping into a frontside hurricane on my favorite parking block never once did I ever actually pretend I was Tom Knox .

On the other hand, my basketball crazed friend Bryan, who was obsessed with Michael Jordan, would regularly crank his basketball goal down to 8 feet, get out his sisters jogging trampoline, and imagine that he wasn't just "like Mike", but that he actually was Mike, complete with a self-generated, fantasy ply by play commentary("Pippen to Jordan...2 seconds left...Jordan drives he scores BULLS WIN THE CHAMPIONSHIP!!"). Likewise, my older brother, a kid who could be ruthless about belittling me for playing Dungeons And Dragons, reading comic books or any other sort of imaginary activities, could often be seen taking on the role of Walter Payton in neighborhood football scrimmages with his friends.

This sort of fantasizing is normal for sports fans, and it can continue, even if fleetingly, well into adolescence, long after other role playing games, like playing with action figures or playing cops and robbers, have been abandoned as childish.

But skaters don't do this sort of thing.

Even in today's world of the crossover skate superstar, I don't see even the grommiest of kids going int role play mode. Even at the height of Muska-mania, when 12 year-old Muskateers were racking themselves  to bust illusion flips in their breakaway warm-up-pants, I don't believe even any of them were ever fantasizing that they were "The Muska".

Put it this way: all skaters fantasize about being on the cover of Thrasher, but none of them fantasize about actually being the guy on the cover of Thrasher.

The difference is subtle but crucial.

In the world of mainstream sports,  inspiration takes a backseat to the adoration and worship of heroes. Sports heroes, thanks to the emphasis on competition and league hierarchies, are built into something more than the mere mortals. They inhabit the same space for most fans as Batman, Abe Lincoln or Tupac Shakur. Fans can never truly be like such lofty heroes, so just watching them becomes an intense, if false, form of interaction and participation. Witness the way sports fans will, when talking about their favorite team, say things like "we played hard" or "we really got robbed" when all they actually did was sit on the couch with a beer and yell at their TV. Witness the rabid fervor some college sports fans have for schools that would never admit them in a million years.

The cultural and economic forces that drive big time sports have a very vested interest in maintaining this relationship. 100 million people watching a football game are much more profitable than 100 million people actually playing football. After all, if watching Tom Brady inspires you to go outside and toss around the pigskin instead of just sitting on the sofa with a bag of nachos watching Tom Brady toss around the pigskin, how is the NFL going to sell you beer, junk food, and pickup trucks? It is the constant reinforcement that what Tom Brady does on Super Bowl Sunday is more important, more real, than what you and your friends do in the backyard, that keeps asses on sofas instead of out in the field on Sunday afternoon.

The role of the sports superstar, then, is to create consumers, not participants.

In skateboarding we put our "heroes" on a pretty high pedestal too, but that pedestal has a built in staircase, a staircase built from our participation in skating. Despite the disparity in skill between the raw kid and the superstar pro, the participation of both is, in its own vital way, at an equal level. The distance between our "heroes" and ourselves has never seemed insurmountable in skateboarding, not even today when some pros can afford Lamborghinis and mansions in Malibu.

When I was young and most prone to idolatry there were definite economic factors in play that prevented the top pros from crossing into the realm inhabited by other sports heroes. The fact that my favorite skaters probably didn't make much more as professionals than my dad did being a maintenance supervisor at the local aluminum plant certainly helped. Compare that to the salaries of the guys I saw on on baseball cards and the covers of Sports Illustrated, guys who made tens of millions a year. For the adolescent sports fan, the adulation is often just as much about the hero's mansions and fast cars as their skill in the game.

But this economic disaprity was never the whole story. Even now, if you take the the pilgrimage to California and hit up the most prominent parks and session the best spots, you are very likely to encounter multiple pros and famous skaters. The skater's instinct in these situations is not to sit and watch, not an instinct of separation reinforced by the "hero's" superior skill. The instinct is to skate, and the nature of the skate "hero", With the rule-proving exception of a few, rare, pumped up pro douchebags, is such that he or she will have no need to deny any skater that experience.


In 1998 I took my one and only skate pilgrimage to California. One night, while our crew was sessioning the ledges at the San Francisco public Library, Mike Carroll,Scott Johnston, and a handful of high-profile ams rolled up. We were shell-shocked for a few seconds, but we didn't stop skating. We found ourselves in a session with some of the greatest skaters to ever spin urethane, and It didn't feel much different from the hundreds of sessions we had had with no name skaters across the country. Sure, Carroll and company were performing on a level way beyond us, but that didn't change the fact that we were all riding the same place together for the same reasons.  Their skill, celebrity and prominence as skateboarders were not a barrier dividing us, at least not one the act of skateboarding couldn't quickly destroy.

This sort of occurrence is not uncommon in skateboarding, especially if you live in the right places, but it as an experience completely alienated from anything but the wildest daydreams of conventional sport fans.

The L.A. Lakers aren't going to randomly show up at the local playground for a pick up game. There are a lot of practical reasons for this, but, more importantly, there are powerful philosophical reasons.

For one thing, basketball stars, (and football or baseball stars as well), don't spend much of their free time playing basketball (unlike pro skaters, who actually spend a lot of time when they are not "at work"  filming video footage or skating demos, skateboarding for fun). For the heroes of big time sports, their status as superstars is supported and enforced by an organizational and financial structure that puts playing their game in a context that discourages the value of playing "for fun".(1)

Big time sports are business, and, as such, they only work if they are restricted to the properly monetized and organized venues: i.e. corporate mandated "training", and monetized games in the privileged, restricted spaces of auditoriums. Even if the stars did want to just cut loose at the local playground, the fame they receive as a dividend of their talent is an effective means as any for preventing the hoops hero from giving his talents away for "free". Kobe would not dare drop by the local court without  a security detail to keep him "safe" from the very people responsible for giving him his privileged place. The mob of fans that would soon aggregate would make any real exchange with those fans, much less any type of game, logistically impossible. The gods of sport don't just choose to stay on mount Olympus, they are trapped there.

But let's say, just for the sake of making a point, Kobe and his boys did magically show up at some local ball court, sans press, sans security, sans entourage, to play for fun. Think about the exchange that would take place between the superstar heroes and the kids just shooting hoops at the park.

Most of the people there, feeling unequal to those stars thanks to the profitable separation big time sports encourages, would revert into spectator mode, stepping aside to make way for their sporting superiors. Even outside the auditorium, the hierarchy is maintained.

If there were a few guys there with enough initiative to ask for a pick up game, the possible outcomes are pretty predictable, and all of them reinforce the nature of the sports "hero".

First, the superstars might tell their prospective challengers to beat it. This might very well upset the challengers. It might tarnish their image of their heroes in their eyes forever. Then again, it might not. So deeply ingrained is the hierarchy of sports that there is a fair chance those rejected might not even feel upset, seeing the privilege of their heroes to determine who they choose to play with as an unquestionable prerogative of their greatness. Certainly many of the onlookers would not consider such treatment of "the fans" as offensive. Many would most likely turn their scorn on the challengers for having the hubris to challenge their superiors to a basketball game.

The other two options involve what would happen if our hypothetical hoopsters graciously accepted the invitation to a pick up game. In this case, the Lakers might play straight against the nobodies, flattening them in a bloodbath that could hardly even be called a game. Alternately, they might pull their punches and let the challengers score a few points before trouncing them, a situation that might be calculated as much to salvage their own image as the ego of the challengers (who would, nevertheless still lose, and be very aware that they were being condescended too).

The point is, either way, condescension or annihilation, the relationship between star and fan will essentially be the same: there is no real exchange or relation of equals. The Heroes' interaction is characterized by the granting of a privilege to the lesser "fan"(2). The competitive and hierarchical nature of sports, the way they segregate the players into leagues and divisions, filing them by importance and prominence, means the exchange between fan and hero will always be shallow, one sided: A relation of dominance and respect and awe for that dominance There is no parity, even symbolically, between fan and hero.

This is not how it works when skateboarders meet their "heroes". There's is an exchange that flows in both directions.

Later in the trip I alluded to earlier, my friends and I found ourselves at an all-night rager at the  Nude Bowl. Luminaries in attendance that enchanted evening included Darren Navarette, Dave Ruel, Randy Colvin, Dave Duncan, and Tony Alva.

Tony fuckin' Alva.

For three nobodies from Indiana, The urge to simply sit and watch at that session was pretty strong. After all,  1998 was only the beginning of the skatepark boom, and we had only just encountered our first park bowls on our swing through Colorado. Being from Indiana none of us had ever ridden a real pool at all .

Still, as the night went on and the stoke elevated, I eventually found myself standing in the shallow end of The Nude Bowl, board in hand, waiting in the queue. Just being there was like standing in the middle of a thundercloud.  When I finally got my run, I gave the hardest push I could, hit the deep end, carved backside about 2 feet shy of the lip, and rolled back into the shallow end only to slide out trying the hit the tight wall.

And people got stoked. I was congratulated, I had my hand-shaked, my shoulder clapped. I was acknowledged. Acknowledged by people hitting more walls than you could count and pulling something gnarly on each one. Acknowledged by the "heroes". The fact that I was skating a real pool for the first time was important to them.

I hit that same wall again and again and again the rest of the night and kept on hitting it when the cheap beer and flowing liquor had caught up to everyone else in the session. As the sun came up, I sat up on the hill above the nude bowl watching it rise, just having what I thought was a solitary moment.

Author emulating Alva. Hutchison photo


A second later I realized I was not alone.

"Did you have a good time tonight?"

I turned around to see Alva watching from a few feet behind me.

"Yeah," I replied. "I'm from Indiana. This is the first time I've skated a real pool."

"Well, that's what it's all about. I'm glad you could come out," he answered.

A couple second later he walked off.

I charged back down the hill and took as many more runs as my sleepless body could stand in the early morning desert heat.

This is what I'm talking about.

Our heroes are not like their heroes. "Hero" status is not a hegemony, its a consensus.

Our "heroes" don't gain their status from objective competitions subsidized by spectators, but by the subjective acclaim of enthusiasts who are not just spectators, but participants. The actions of pro skaters are not separated into some privileged venue tailored for observation and adulation. Our heroes skate the same streets, the same parks, with the same goals as the rest of us: the pursuit of skateboarding.

This is why a journeyman skateboarder doesn't feel like an impostor standing on the deck of a bowl taking runs with Ben Raybourn, Greyson Fletcher, and Grant Taylor. This is why demos featuring the top pros are still often free-for-all affairs, with locals skating alongside the "heroes". It is why pros themselves  often feel awkward in demo situations where their "fans" are simply sitting idly by and watching them perform. It is why contests, even in the era of Street League and The X games, are still a marginal part of our culture.

And this is why maybe the term "hero" itself is a disservice to skateboarding and the pro skaters who inhabit it, why I feel uncomfortable referring to the many amazing figures I have admired and emulated in thirty years of riding as my skate "heroes".

A lot of skaters are worried about Nike selling shoes to skateboarders, Zumiez selling them boards and shoes, or Monster bankrolling contests and sponsoring pros in order to pitch energy drinks to skateboarders.

A lot of skaters are taking up arms to fight the infidels, but many of them are completely oblivious to the true nature of the invasion. Corporations aren't buying in to take over the skateboard business. there's no real money in that. Just ask the local skateshop owner the skate partisans are ordering you to support. The corporate invasion is not about controlling the products skaters buy, it is about turning skateboarding into something that can be used to to control the things everyone else buys.

And the key to that, as big-time sports so eloquently exemplify, is the establishment of heroes. Heroes who are such specials, untouchable, glittering snowflakes that merely watching what they do is infused with the illusion of real engagement. The endgame of corporate America is to make professional skateboarders and elite skateboarding so rife with contrived significance that Nyjah Huston won't just be able to sell skateboards and Monster energy drinks to gullible groms,  he'll be able to sell Mcdonald's hamburgers and minivans to people who never even contemplate stepping on a skateboard.

Zumiez doesn't care about putting your local skate shop out of business. There's not enough money in that market to elevate their stock profile. They care about making skateboarding into a sales pitch that transcends skateboards and those who dare to ride them.

That is the endgame folks. Not to make sure very kid on a skateboard wears Nike's. Not to get every grom at the park swigging monster. The endgame is to turn our culture into a consumable fantasy, easily attached to any product; to make it a universal, easily adaptable sales pitch.

When that happens, then we really may lose skateboarding.

The strongest way to resist is to make sure no skateboarder ever becomes a "hero", or, at least, not their brand of hero.

Lets all be skaters. Let's all just stay skaters. That's all any of us need to be.

Notes:

1) In fact, since pro athletes represent a significant business investment for corporate sports teams, those teams usually impose very strict controls on the physical activities athletes can engage in in their "free" time. If a sports star was to injure himself shooting hoops in a neighborhood pick-up game, not only would the resulting injury be extremely detrimental to his performance that season, but it may also often result in a stiff fine from his employers. Risking the corporation's assets in the pursuit of enjoyment must be discouraged when profits are on the line. This fine structure extends to all sorts of "risky" activities a superstar might participate in, from dancing to riding motorcycles. It would be interesting to know if any skate sponsors have similar rules.

2) It is interesting to note that skateboard enthusiasts are virtually never referred to as "Skateboard Fans", even by the mainstream. They are "skaters". This is because there are very very few people interested in skateboarding that do not actually ride a board in some capacity. In terms of identity, both internally and identity imposed by others, the fact that a person rides a skateboard supersedes their status as an aficianado. Contrast this with spectator sports, where there are millions of enthusiasts who don't ever play: "fans". In fact, thanks to the hierarchy of sports, even those who play everyday, yet do not belong to some officially sanctioned or prominent team or organization, are usually still referred to as "fans" instead of players. You need structural validation to be more than a consumer.









7 comments:

  1. On Point. Insightful. Still not convinced we are going to "lose skateboarding", as much as concerned that we are going to have to skate shitty boards, and trucks that fall apart, with no guarantees, and wheels that flatspot and wear like candles.
    My main concern is that the industry will fall even more deeply into the rut of self-serving that it is in, now.

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