Dividing Lines – The Segregated Soul of Surfing

06 Dec
December 6, 2014

Freesurfing vs. Pro Surfing

As we head into the homestretch of the 2014 ASP World Championship Tour, we know that a fast-approaching storm of inevitable controversy, heartfelt conviction and colorful commentary is headed our way. We don’t even have to wait to spot it on the horizon. It is coming just as surely as that sneaker set at your favorite big wave surf spot.

Just sit deep and get ready for it.

By December 20th, the entire surf world will be blowing up over botched scores, titles earned or gifted, the new world order and the very future of our sport. Or… err… “activity”. (Dang it! I knew that one was coming and still took it right on the head! When will I learn?)

Jokes aside, I say this because I know full well that in the midst of all the coming noise, the loudest voices won’t be from those interested in the compelling storylines that the ASP, ZoSea and the world’s greatest surfers will have delivered for us. Nope. It’ll come from those who wish that professional competitive surfing would just pack up its sh#t and go away.

Forever.

After all, surfing is too diverse to be siloed. Too sacred to be packaged and sold. It was always meant to be, “free”.

The continuing segregation of surfing into two camps, “freesurfers” who believe that surfing at its core is a spiritual activity inherently at odds with competition and consumerism, and those who support professional surfing as an acceptable way to advance and enjoy the sport, is as old as competitive surfing, itself. But these days, like so much other social and ideological phenomena, the divisions just seem to have grown deeper, the conversations more shrill and cynical, our ideological differences pulling us further apart in ways that are neither fun, healthy nor productive.

Maybe it’s just me. Heck, I’ve been “freesurfing” for the past 25 years! I haven’t competed in a contest since college, when I launched my own citywide surf league. And even then, when we competed, it was always in the spirit of fun and fellowship.

At the same time, if I had sufficient talent to make a living competing as a pro on the WCT, would I do it? Hell yes- in a second! I do love competition. Professional sporting competition. Professional surfing competition! As a result, I’ve followed it closely for nearly as many years as I’ve been surfing.

And therein lies the biggest disconnect of the whole, “surfing as an activity vs. surfing as a sport (or a business; or product)” narrative: Why should any of us have to choose one over the other? Can’t we enjoy all of the various aspects of surfing? Haven’t most of us always done so, to one degree or another?

Following the careers of surfers like Shaun Tomson, Tom Curren, Kelly Slater and John John Florence… watching live contests in places most of us could only dream about in conditions we could only imagine… enjoying the sheer drama of the battles for glory that have provided the fundamental appeal of all athletic competition since the first Olympiad in 765 BC?

Increasingly, it seems that the freesurfers of the world –the real freesurfing purists and not those like me, who are only half-in– would have us be free of everything but their opinions and their judgment, ever-projecting a self-righteous air of pretentious enlightenment that the rest of us poor souls who watch contests more than clips, could only ever hope to understand. And, while I couldn’t care less about how anyone might try to frame me as one kind of surfer or another- that mindset, old as it is, is fast becoming as stale and sour as the rest of the ideological antipathy that we increasingly see grinding our country and our communities to a halt.

Interestingly, the Pew Research Center noted in a recent study that people with strong political views are increasingly constructing their lives around people who agree with them, while shunning those who disagree. The report stated that this kind of ideological rigidity is increasingly leading people to actively avoid others with divergent opinions, making them not only more likely do simple things like defriending on Facebook, but also affecting their decisions about where to live (think Red State / Blue State- all the way down to the neighborhood level); where to eat; where to shop and do business; even who to start a family with (“My name is Canyon. I’m 25. I love surfing and traveling, ride a ’73 Steve Lis fish and am looking for a girl who hates Paul Speaker as much as I do.”)

It begs the question: Are many surfers today really not traveling down the path of independent thought, but rather, simply following the well-trodden and increasingly crowded path of rigid ideologues whose close-minded thinking continues to sabotage compromise, civility and acceptance in so many areas of society, today?

No offense to my friends in California, but I often wonder if the whole freesurfing “purist” vs. “competitive” or “commercial surfing” narrative is primarily a Calicentric industry phenomenon? Because I rarely see so much hand-wringing about it over here on the East Coast.

Here, by and large, all competitors are idolized, from world champs to mid-level CT’ers and QS’ers to local blue-collar rippers. They are supported at every level from the amateur ranks to the pros. When they win, we all win. And when they lose, retire, get hurt, run out of money, head back to college or into the real world, it’s no big deal. They are welcomed right back into the water where you could always find them anyway between their competitions, heats and traveling- freesurfing.

I understand that California suffers from severe crowd-control issues at many spots (don’t we all), and that a common complaint about ZoSea, current owners of professional surfing, is that their ultimate goal to bring surfing to the masses via the aggressive marketing of professional competitive surfing will only worsen this frustrating trend. Truth is, shifting demographic trends and local zoning and development regulations are far more likely to impact these issues than people from Ohio watching the Teahupo’o contest live on ABC, or breaking heats down afterwards on YouTube.

Heck, in a well-researched article written earlier this year by Stu Nettle on Swellnet, his organization’s findings suggest that you could see the crowds at your local break plummet by as much as 30% as soon as Slater decides to retire! (Or at the very least, folks will be unplugging from watching professional surfing, online).

Ultimately, the fear of increasing crowds is just one of a laundry list of justifications that surfing “purists” cite for being skeptical of professional competitive surfing generally, and ZoSea in particular. There’s too much we know about them, and too much we don’t. I for one think they’ve been doing a pretty damn good job with the exception of the name change to the World Surfing League (I understand their reasoning, I just don’t like their choice). Regardless, the ASP and professional surfing have survived name changes and many much larger challenges in the past, and both have only continued to grow.

If the conspiracy theories are true and ZoSea ends up leaving surfing at the altar because like others before them, Paul Speaker, Terry Hardy and (allegedly) Dirk Ziff can’t figure out how to wring a dime out of it, rest assured, it won’t stay down for long. As long as there are surfers who yearn to make a living out of their passion, there will always be others willing to try.

As for me, I’ll continuing to keep an “open mind”, something surfing’s “purists” like to own, but which doesn’t resonate when they continually insinuate that those of us who enjoy professional competitive surfing are somehow uniformed, immoral or something less than “pure”, because we value surfing both as an activity and a sport. It is both those things and so much more.

Note: This article originally appeared on TheInertia.com. Go here see to the original version, and full ensuing discussion.

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