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A Crime and a Pastime

The paranoid style of American skateboarding

People came to California for gold or agriculture or loansharking or, later, to get famous, and by late 1962 it was the most populous state in the country. And it was there, around that time, on the blacktop schoolyards of coastal suburbs, that a sport and pastime uniquely suited to the American ethos blossomed: skateboarding. The frontier sought by so many was gone, it’s true, but the frontierist’s mindset remained. What business of yours is it if my friends and I want to grind on the painted curb behind the grocery store? Leave us alone. The curb became, for the skater, a fancifully deregulated zone imbued with limitless possibilities—and therefore a kind of freedom, so long as he could be left alone in his pursuits.

Which is to say that skaters have always taken a perverse pride in being outsiders and misfits, bonding over stories of jocks who bullied them and sedans that drove by yelling “KICKFLIP!” It’s a sui generis sport typically without spectators, time limits, written rules, or even competitors—an activity so smitten with its own exceptionalism that, even today, at the height of its popularity, many skateboarders deny the “sport” label entirely. As professional skater Braydon Szafranski recently told Rolling Stone—in reference to its introduction into the 2020 Olympic Games—“Skateboarding is a crime, not a sport.”

But might the deliberate criminals, the Raskolnikovs of skateboarding, be predisposed to a certain degree of paranoia? It’s surprising to consider, though perhaps it shouldn’t be, that skateboarding found its identity in the thick of the Cold War, when the longstanding American persecution complex returned to the fore. It’s not insignificant that the first independent U.S. skateboarding magazine, The Quarterly Skateboarder (later Skateboarder Magazine), was published in 1964, the same year that saw Barry Goldwater’s landmark Republican nomination, as well as the publication of Richard Hofstadter’s infamous Harper’s essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” which maligned the “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” of right-leaning groups while leveraging its own anti-egalitarian paranoia. Hofstadter’s moment, in other words, was likewise one that made room for Murray Rothbard, Karl Hess, and the inchoate lurchings of an American right-wing libertarian movement that aimed to combine a “heated suspiciousness” of outsiders with an anti-authoritarian minimalism of the state.

However absurd it may sound, skateboarding’s first years were clearly bound up with America’s burgeoning paranoiac libertarianism. It may have been that the blithe surfiness of early skateboarding masked its suspicion of outsiders—of anyone, that is, who doesn’t skate—as well as its predilection for clique formation against a sometimes (though not always) invisible regulatory bogeyman. Take, for example, John Severson’s editorial from the first issue of The Quarterly Skateboarder, which jumbles cheeriness with frontier psychology and an oddly preemptive suspicion of “opponents”:

Today’s skateboarders are founders in this sport—they’re pioneers—they are the first. There is no history in Skateboarding—its being made now—by you. The sport is being molded and we believe that doing the right thing now will lead to a bright future for the sport. Already there are storm clouds on the horizon with opponents of the sport talking about ban and restriction.

Whatever his good intentions (which he had in spades), Severson’s “storm cloud” prophecy against regulation haunts a sport that today proves unable to provide healthcare for its practitioners, even as it courts global reach, massive corporate sponsorship, and elite brand status. And despite Severson’s excitable projection for the sport’s “bright future,” it should be admitted that skating’s do-it-alone pioneerism has given way to a solipsistic, even paranoid culture that is dispiriting in its susceptibility to conspiratorial thinking—just consider revered skate brand Alien Workshop’s deck collaboration with Infowars.

Perhaps skating’s libertarian streak means that it can be curiously and sadly hostile to social life. Even a cursory glance at the skate video canon reveals encounters between skaters and security guards, cops, and civilians who want them off their property. These clips can bear a close similarity to YouTube videos of sovereign citizens telling police they don’t recognize their authority. As filmer and crew look on, a skater will alternately beg and scream at the person to let them just try the trick one more time. Often the angry authority figure will grab the skater’s board, at which point an all-out scramble occurs. Arguing with cops is one thing, but it’s a sad affair watching teenage skateboarders brawl with aging apartment superintendents.

The Lesson of the Master

Worryingly, these young skaters have a new champion in Jordan Peterson, the Canadian academic whose 2018 book 12 Rules for Life became a surprise best seller on the back of his popular YouTube channel. Plenty has been written about his noxious blend of misogyny, neo-fascism, and self-help, but I was struck to learn that Peterson’s eleventh commandment is “Do Not Bother Children When They Are Skateboarding.” Peterson is a pseudo-intellectual reactionary, but he basically gets skateboarding right. (He even wields the term “boardslide” correctly, which is impressive in a climate where most mainstream sources tend to consider Tony Hawk’s 900 as the alpha and omega of skateboarding achievement.) The chapter begins with Peterson talking about how, while he was working at the University of Toronto, he would sometimes watch young skateboarders hurl themselves down a set of stairs:

Some might call that stupid. Maybe it was. But it was brave, too. I thought those kids were amazing. I thought they deserved a pat on the back and some honest admiration. Of course it was dangerous. Danger was the point. They wanted to triumph over danger. They would have been safer in protective equipment, but that would have ruined it. They weren’t trying to be safe. They were trying to become competent—and it’s competence that makes people as safe as they can truly be.

He goes on to bemoan the installation of skatestoppers, treacherous blocks mounted on rails and ledges for reasons made evident in the name:

The skatestoppers are unattractive. The surround of the nearby sculpture would have to have been badly damaged by diligent boardsliders before it would look as mean as it does now, studded with metal like a pit bull’s collar.

And later:

Beneath the production of rules stopping the skateboarders from doing highly skilled, courageous and dangerous things I see the operation of an insidious and profoundly anti-human spirit.

You cannot create a perfectly safe world, Peterson argues, and efforts to do so are actively harmful. Kids need to familiarize themselves with risk. “We feel invigorated and excited when we work to optimize our future performance, while playing in the present,” he writes. “Otherwise we lumber around, sloth-like, unconscious, unformed and careless. Overprotected, we will fail when something dangerous, unexpected and full of opportunity suddenly makes its appearance, as it inevitably will.”

Peterson is pandering to a general audience; he’s especially popular among millennials, a demographic young enough to have experienced the suffocating effects of helicopter parenting and largely too poor now to have children themselves—thus his readers have not yet had to resist the (presumably overwhelming) pull to become helicopter parents. But even though he doesn’t care about skateboarding beyond using it to publicly denounce coddled children, Peterson has nonetheless stumbled over skateboarding’s bulging libertarian roots.

This libertarianism extends way beyond the fact that members of the two groups—dyed-in-the-wool libertarians and skateboarders—share a hardcore aversion to marijuana laws. And it’s not to suggest that skateboarding itself is a threat to the youth (I think it’s good). But it is worth examining how the sport’s self-conception and the structure of its industry are rooted in an individualistic mentality with a deep suspicion of outsiders. This isolationist streak has helped this most American hobby to remain uncorrupted in a way that other sports haven’t. But it has also made skateboarding solipsistic, tone-deaf to the demands of social life, and it has led to an anti-regulatory mania that plagues the vast global industry that has sprung up around the sport.

A Faustian Economy

The caliber of tricks that can be done in quick succession and on demand pales in comparison to what can be achieved over hours and dozens of attempts in an empty parking lot, and so contests are looked at askance in the world of skateboarding—they’re seen as minor divertissements of corporatism that foster boring skating. And while events like Street League and the X Games are popular with younger fans, there has never been an appetite for a widely recognized central governing body in the manner of the NFL or MLB. When skateboarding makes its Olympic debut, it will be represented by the International Roller Sports Federation—the group responsible for rollerblading, skateboarding’s traditional punching bag—with the more credible International Skateboarding Federation playing merely an advisory role.

Skateboarding’s first years were clearly bound up with America’s burgeoning paranoiac libertarianism.

With paying contests relegated to minor status, and without a functioning umbrella organization, skateboarding is best understood as a full-time freelance economy funded through endorsement deals. Pro skaters are contract employees, paid to be jumping-and-grinding advertisements for half a dozen or so sponsors—makers of boards, shoes, wheels, trucks, clothing, and energy drinks. (In recent years, too, maintaining a social media presence has become another of companies’ demands.) After spending countless man-hours indentured to such companies, the gamest pros find themselves able to branch out and pursue the skater’s dream: they start their own skate brands and sign younger skaters, at which point the cycle spins forward.

Yet as skateboarding has grown in popularity over the last two decades, large corporations have more and more sought their cut. In the same way that libertarians decry the government while thirsting for its handouts, the skate industry has begun to depend on the bankrolls of the very (enormous) “carpetbaggers” it once disparaged: Vans, Adidas, and, especially, Nike. Though Vans has long been associated with skating, Nike and Adidas were mocked when they first tried to enter the market in the nineties. But when streetwear boomed in the 2000s, alongside a decline in board sales, the big two wormed their way into the market, offering top-tier pros contracts they couldn’t refuse. Now that these cherished pros ride for Nike, even riders on other teams hesitate to criticize the brand.

Meanwhile, this capricious, industry-wide shift presages darker days of the too-big-to-fail shade. Skateboarding is now ascendant, but what if these companies find that post-Olympics profits aren’t what they expected? A decision by Nike or Adidas to leave the market could be devastating; not only could the top skaters find themselves without their corporate bargains, but the cash-and-capital drought could blight out board and clothing companies, many of which are owned by the very skaters sponsored by Nike and Adidas.

The house-of-cards structure of the industry, glued together as it is by the mercurial fealty of corporate sponsorship, is masked by skateboarding’s libertarian delusion that it functions as a meritocracy. There are only a handful of famous staircases, after all, down which skateboarders can leap into prominence, provided they land a sufficiently difficult trick. But the meritocracy falls apart as soon as you realize that there is no agreed upon rubric for merit, and no worn path for the would-be sponsored skater. What’s more, there are multiple levels of sponsored skateboarders, which crisscross in both hierarchical and nonhierarchical ways: flow riders, who get products for free; amateurs, who ride for teams in exchange for product and (sometimes) stipends or travel costs; and pros, who can make serious cash through shoe deals, adjacent endorsements, and contests. To further blur the distinction, both amateurs and pros appear in ads and brand videos. And, anyway, there is no set formula for becoming a professional skater; board companies turn amateurs into professionals by way of a black box determination that factors a mix of popularity, marketability, age, and time spent as an amateur. As it turns out, amateurs are often as talented (and usually way more productive) than professionals. If they don’t get injured, if they can slog it out for a few years, amateurs might be lucky enough to earn a pro slot. It’s a system almost comparable to academia, with its adjunct and tenured professors, if, well, more disorganized and libertarian.

The curb became, for the skater, a fancifully deregulated zone imbued with limitless possibilities—and therefore a kind of freedom.

Once a skater turns professional, there are two ways things can go. As with any other sport, there are a handful of marketable names undergirded by a workman majority. At its core, personal success in skateboarding comes by winning a popularity contest, by appealing to young consumers who buy skateboards, gear, and clothing. A professional might earn royalties for years (or even decades) without releasing, for example, any new footage. (If the sales are strong, a brand has no reason to drop a skater from its team.) For those who fail to make a name for themselves in this illusory world of merit, however, careers can be vanishingly short. Injury inevitably couples with age; footage gets harder to come by; sponsors disappear. As the checks dwindle, skaters are forced, as the saying goes, to find a real job. Some seek work as team managers or pursue other roles within the industry, but the transition isn’t always smooth. High-level skateboarding can be a full-time commitment during the years most young people are pursuing higher learning or entering the work force. For a thirty-two-year-old with no résumé beyond a stylish backside tailslide, landing a job—especially one that pays a decent wage—is a challenge.

It should go without saying: there is no social safety net in skateboarding.

It should go without saying: there is no social safety net in skateboarding. As freelancers, skateboarders rarely obtain health insurance through sponsors. It may be the case, as Ian Browning reports in Jenkem, that certain companies (like Red Bull) offer help with medical bills or pay for physical therapy, but riders for a company as large as Converse go without coverage entirely. That the world’s largest sneaker company (Converse is owned by Nike) would fail to insure its contracted athletes, who risk life and limb to appear in its ads—in a sport that almost necessarily causes injury—is morally repugnant. It’s also proof that these corporations understand their riders as replaceable commodities unworthy of investment. And if they’re willing to fickly rifle between skaters, how will Nike and Adidas react when skateboarding’s popularity unavoidably wanes—as it did in the late 1960s?

Native Content

Despite the mounting power of corporate brands, most of the individuals who control the skate industry—even those in charge of the brands’ programs—are skaters themselves. This is helpful insofar as they’re more likely to have skating’s best interests at heart. But this autonomy has also incubated an unfortunate industry tendency to think of everyone—riders, team managers, owners, and the skate publications who cover them—as likeminded bros instead of arbiters of a multibillion dollar business.

Nowhere is this more evident than with the skateboarding press. Never exactly robust, these outlets have been sideswiped (like everyone else) by the turn to digital media; only a handful of magazines remain. The websites that survive acquit themselves honorably of the tasks of hosting videos and interviewing pros, but they rarely become more than trade publications, beholden to the unquestioned values and unmitigated financial success of their industry.

This insularity can have dark consequences. In 2017, Cory Kennedy, a pro for Nike and Girl Skateboards, was arrested on suspicion of vehicular homicide and driving under the influence in a fatal crash that killed prominent Thrasher videographer and personality Preston “P-Stone” Maigetter. In the wake of the accident, there was an immediate outpouring of grief and remembrance for P-Stone posted on sites like Thrasher and Transworld Skateboarding, and by pro skaters on Instagram, but scant mention that Cory Kennedy had driven the car that killed him. An analogous situation in another sport is unimaginable. If, say, Kevin Love killed Bill Simmons in a possible drunk driving accident, the story would dominate sports coverage for days. And if outlets like ESPN and Sports Illustrated refused to report it, they would rightly be seen as negligent.

This bro-ish groupthink has just as easily declined into reactionary childishness. When Dogtown skate pioneer Jay Adams died in 2014, Vice’s Jonathan Smith wrote a thoughtful piece titled “Maybe We Shouldn’t Be So Quick to Idolize a Gay-Bashing Skateboarder.” Smith (who, full disclosure, is my editor at Vice), acknowledged Adams’s influence in skateboarding, but criticized both skate publications and mainstream outlets like BuzzFeed and the New York Times for failing to mention in their obituaries his role in the 1982 murder of a gay black man. (Adams was charged with murder but convicted of felony assault, for which he served six months in prison.) Commenters pilloried Smith for speaking ill of the dead. As one put it, “Knowing that Jay Adams just died, it’s kind of whack for a writer to just write an article to discredit the guy and just to do it to be a douche.” These horrors are compounded by others—rumors of sexual assault, stories of violence, skaters who have turned alt-right—that circulate widely among skateboarders but are never written about, except on the Slap Magazine message board, a Reddit-esque forum that fields puerile jokes and suspiciously accurate gossip.

The Faraway Dream

For better and worse, skateboarding’s parochialism has kept it immune to the broader cultural “awokening.” On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, SK8MAFIA, a San Diego–based company, Instagrammed a picture of Martin Luther King Jr., who they photoshopped to appear as if he was throwing the SK8MAFIA hand sign—fingers splayed in an “S,” sort of in the spirit of the Wu-Tang “W”—next to the SK8MAFIA logo. SK8MAFIA has a multi-racial, multi-generational team, and there’s no reason to think that any of the 11,500+ users who liked the image thought it disrespectful or misguided. Still, for someone steeped in internet outrage culture, it’s not hard to imagine how certain mainstream publications could have a field day with such an ad. Stephen Lawyer, a SK8MAFIA rider beloved for his flamboyant camouflage and idiosyncratic choice of tricks, shared the image and added his own version of the Dream speech: “I have a dream everyone minds their own business and acts in a way not harmful to others. A dream far far away but let’s try.” Sure, it would be easy to take issue with turning MLK’s famous line into a clunky vendetta against busybodies, but give it a charitable reading: Lawyer’s not a public intellectual. He’s just a guy broadcasting an appreciation for Martin Luther King Jr. Who could object?

On the other hand, Lawyer’s meme concisely expresses the unattainable object of libertarian desire, the know-nothing fantasy that attends the demand that “everyone minds their own business”—which is usually code for “let me get mine,” politics be damned. Skate culture has gotten its, it has to be said; it has ridden this principle into zones of wealth and recognition far larger than its meager beginnings could ever have portended.

Among these zones is fashion. The most influential fashion brand of the last decade is Supreme, which is ostensibly a skate shop. Though hard goods (boards, trucks, wheels, etc.) could not amount to but a small fraction of their sales, the company has been vigilant about keeping its image. Supreme has successfully walked the line between celebrity endorsement—Justin Bieber, Kanye West, and Drake are all prominent fans—and sponsoring the best young skateboarders around the world. In the last few years, the company has collaborated with Antihero and Independent—two quintessentially “core” skate companies, if their names didn’t give that away—as well as Louis Vuitton. The strategy seems to be working: in 2017 the company reportedly sold a 50 percent stake to the private equity firm the Carlyle Group for a $500 million.

Skateboarding can, and probably will, stay on this path, but it will do so at the expense of what makes it a rich subculture. Go to a place like New York City’s LES Park and you’ll find local teens, visiting pros, lowlifes, yuppies—men and women of all ages and races brought together by a love of skateboarding. The sport can be inclusive, with the caveat that you must follow its unwritten codes (hold your board like this, don’t do those tricks); and though there are slang terms and practices that would be forbidding to outsiders, there’s also a shared knowledge of feats, facts, and the geography of any given city. Best of all, skateboarding’s independent streak means it fosters a healthily rebellious worldview—no small accomplishment as our society drifts toward bland authoritarianism. To be sure, there is money to be made in ignoring this drift, in remaining beholden to libertarian corporatism. There is also a precarious future for working skateboarders and, let’s be honest, Jordan Peterson.