Andy Irons surfing Tahiti Portugal

Christian Fletcher believes that Billabong was looking out for Irons. “Would you put a bunch of money into something without putting a good security system on it, then keeping an eye on it?” he asks, rhetorically. Irons after his last career victory in Tahiti (L) and competing in his final full ASP contest in Portugal (R). Photos: ASP/Kirstin


The Inertia

Like many of the current crop of famous surfers, Irons was, in part, raised by the surf industry. His professional career began with his win at the HIC Pipleline Pro in 1996, when he was still a senior in high school. In 2001, he became one of the wealthiest surfers in the world after signing with Billabong for a reported $650,000 a year. While the generous compensation was a novelty at the time, one thing remained the same:

“Temptation,” says agent and former pro surfer, Johnn Shimooka, whose company, Consolidated Sports, represents elite pro surfers like Jordy Smith, Laura Enever, and Michel Bourez. “Everyone wants a piece of you. Whether you are fifty in the world and have a huge domestic following or you’re a world champ. These days there is so much on the line, so much money and prestige.”

Does it go to surfers’ heads?  “Sure,” he says, not referring specifically to Irons, but to the young surfers he has dealt with both as an agent and through managing Quiksilver’s Young Guns program. “All young surfers are prima donnas. I know I was. There is a lot of pressure on these kids, and they run the very real danger of burning out from being exposed to too much, too soon. It’s up to the individual athlete to have a support group around them that is honest and open and will bring them back down to earth when they get too big for their britches.”

“If I had a son or a daughter who was in that whole [sponsorship] program…” Brewer begins, then falters. “…It’s virtually unchaperoned. Maybe they need team managers to watch over the kids or participate in their lives a little more. It’s got to be someone they respect.”

In different interviews, industry workers described team managers as everything from “glorified babysitters,” to “frustrated, ex-pro surfers,” to “some of the toughest, most underpaid and most underrated people in pro surfing.”

That last one came from Shimooka, though he agrees that babysitting is part of the job. “You end up being the first line of emotional support for a lot of these kids, and if you commit to looking out for them, well, you had better look out for them.”

I ask him how far that statement extends – these are, after all, other people’s children. “I like to say: ‘You’re never bigger than the game,’” says Shimooka. “What I mean is, unless you’re Kelly Slater, to me you have to wipe your own ass. I will help you to the best of my ability, but you have to draw the line somewhere or surfers will and can take advantage of a team manager to the point where it becomes a joke.”

Shimooka declined to comment directly on Irons, but my overarching question was: if sponsors play such a large role in a surfer’s support network, did Billabong have a responsibility to help Irons, effectively just an employee of their company, albeit an important one, get clean?

Fletcher believes that Billabong was looking out for Irons. “Would you put a bunch of money into something without putting a good security system on it, then keeping an eye on it?” he asks, rhetorically. But Fletcher was simultaneously dismissive of managers’ ability to influence surfers’ habits – especially as related to his own troubled career. “Wow, like that’s going to make an impact. A lot of people told me I was fucking up, but they were full blown drug addicts themselves.”

Fletcher was a pro surfer in a very different era, and he isn’t implying that the surfing industry is overflowing with drug addicts. It is not, however, by his or anyone else interviewed for this article’s estimations, an easy place to get clean.

Another industry insider I met at the Rip Curl Pro Search in Puerto Rico mentioned a surfer who was particularly distraught about Irons’ death because they had helped each other “stay on the wagon” in the past: “I hope this makes some of the other guys on tour wake up and re-evaluate their lives a bit,” he said.

Many people I’ve spoken with on and off the record show flashes of survivors’ guilt, perhaps best explained by Brewer’s age-old surfing cliché “none of us are saints.”  Fletcher, on the other hand, rejects the idea of recriminations. “Kids in the surf industry need to be looked out for. They are young and dumb and have no coping skills, and they are surrounded by Yes Men giving them massive egos. But at some point you need to take responsibility for yourself. I’m forty years old, and I’ve had a lot of friends die recently. People try to place blame everywhere when people overdose. The way I look at it is: how old is the guy?  And when is he going to become responsible for his own actions?”

But even Fletcher softens slightly and takes on a semi-philosophical tone when asked about the difficulties of being a pro surfer. “From the outside looking in, it’s the best job in the world. But making money can take the passion out of it. Not for everyone, but for me it did. If you are expecting to be paid, there are obligations you have to fulfill. Whether that is a wave pool in Arizona or talking to a guy in a bar who is drunk and bugging the shit out of you. Sometimes it takes a lot of fucking work.”

Shimooka agrees. “Pro surfers spend a lot of time away from the comforts of home – their friends, their girlfriends, even little things like their own pillows. The road gets lonely. You are out there on your own, against the world, and the world is a very big place. Sure, if you are on a roll, everyone wants to know you, but when you can’t get results it’s easy to fall off track. I encourage you to try and be a pro athlete. It ain’t easy. Even the best surfers in the world get lonely, even multiple [time] world champions.”

“Andy was too important to the industry,” says Brewer. “He was a hero, and that’s how they wanted him to go out. Dengue fever? Yea, right. One in a fucking million die of Dengue.”

I ask him if official revelations of drug use will diminish his legacy. “No, not at all. He’s like Jimi Hendrix. He was already great, and now that he’s gone it just carries on that mystique. It’s almost like a marketing tool.”

Additional reporting contributed by Zach Weisberg.

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  • Richard

    Good on ya for stepping up and exposing the truth about pro surfing and drug abuse. Its about time the surf industry took some responsibility of their own.

  • CoriS

    Surfer mag reposts press releases and statement from family.
    Stab reposts statement from family. 
    Surfing mag…. *crickets*

    This article exemplifies exactly why I read The Inertia. Thank you, Endo. 

    • George

      It must be weird to be working at one of those mags – watching yourself become less and less relevant by the day…

  • TinaS

    Finally an article that says how it works in surfing. Drugs are everywhere and everybody knew that.
    But despite all the drug stuff the official manner of death is “natural” and I think that should in a sophisticated article like that one be mentioned. 70-80% artheriosclerosis is mentioned in the official autopsy report (http://outside-blog.away.com/files/press-release-06-10-2011.pdf). Even though I’m totally against downplaying all that drug stuff, this medical finding should definitely be taken into account as well.
    But thank you very much for a very rare rational article.

  • Stu

    Freaking awesome article.  How Chris Cote is the editor of TWS and you’re posting for a free blog is beyond me.

    • Smcguc01

      It’s easy, when there is no writing. It’s all bright colors, and airs. TWS is for 12 year olds.

      • Al Baydough

        Even 12 year olds need better guidance than what TWS provides.

        A bratty publication only encourages bratty behavior. No reason they can’t splice solid content with radical surfing. 
        There are many surfers who are at the cutting edge who display admirable behavior worth emulating. Why this is not only overlooked but even derided by many in the industry is both baffling and abhorrant.

    • DoubleJ

      that’s a pretty redundant question since Chris Cote is the poster child for the head in the sand surf industry.  

      • Chris Cote

        I get to be on a poster! Awesome!

        • Stu

          c’mon, Chris.  Deep down, these comments must hurt.  Nothing to say on the matter at all?

          • Chris Cote

            You must think a lot of yourself to insinuate that your comments would mean anything to me, let alone hurt me.

            Endo’s article is eloquent and written beautifully. I see no reason to bring me in to the discussion. If you don’t like TransWorld SURF, don’t read it. I enjoy TheInertia.com and will continue to visit the site on a daily basis.

            Thank you.

          • Stu

            were it only me, I might see your point.  But it’s not, and I don’t.  Those thick glasses must come in rose color now…

          • Al Baydough

            You knew Irons and know his family. It would be wrong and unnecessarily harmful for you to comment on his disastrous choices. I would not expect it nor require it of you. 

            You could,  however, write a heartfelt piece on what this loss and its causes (and the toll of such behavior has exacted in the surf world in general) means to you; how you would hope that it might have some kind of silver lining in the end.
            Maybe you need more time.
            But the way I have seen you handle this episode and respond to those who take issue with the very real fact that TSW, and the industry in general, are immensely irresponsible about how they impact the world of surfing is anything but respectable.
            The mirror may show the face of a man but the words echo the mind of a child.

            You visit The Inertia regularly? Hopefully you will begin to glean some wisdom from it sooner than later.

          • Gordy

            It honestly doesn’t make sense to target Chris Cote and TW Surf as villainous in any of this. TWS does exactly what they allege: provide light, accessible entertainment for the young surfers of the world. Whether you agree with it or not, they don’t pretend to take themselves any more seriously. And Cote’s the only guy who admits he reads, enjoys, and is affected by outlets like this one. He deserves some kind of props for his honesty.

            It’s the other mags, who presume to be “Bibles” and purport to have “real” writers who scoff at the TWS’s of the world that deserve criticism, and Endo’s piece puts them in check. They know where they stand, toothless and cuffed.

          • Stu

            I’m actually confused by TWS and its supposed “target market”.  They’re for 12 year olds, but then feature all kinds of BS clearly aimed at older folks (how many 7th graders really appreciate the specialness of the Cali Rally?).  They perv on Alana Blanchard, but then somehow think they’re appealing to the masses when they actually show girls surfing (ala Steph’s cover last year and the current issue’s cover this year).  I don’t actually think anyone is making TWS out to be a bad guy vis-a-vis AI.  That said, it’s hard not to question a magazine that features surfers’ poor behavior  issue in and issue out only to ignore the fun once it’s done.  As for Chris, I’m pretty sure he has his own personal demons when it comes to AI and what “the industry” did or didn’t do for him.

          • Gordy

            Maybe so, but I still think TWS is a low-hanging fruit when it comes to scapegoating and I’m honestly surprised you’re that familiar with their magazine. You brought TWS and Cote into this discussion like an involuntary reflex when other surf publications ostensibly aspire to more but essentially deliver the exact same product – just with an air of undeserved pretentiousness. In my view, that seems like a greater sin.

          • Stu

            to be quite honest, I don’t even know who the editors of Surfer and/or Surfing are.  To dismiss TWS as “low hanging fruit”, however, simply serves to encourage more sh*tty mags from them.  

          • Al Baydough

            With this kind of grade school reaction, given the topic at hand, Cote is the one who opened the door against him:

            “I get to be on a poster! Awesome!”

            Seriously, would you crack jokes at your mother’s funeral as well?

            And yes, the entire surf industry (and culture that fawns over it) needs to seriously check itself. That point has been made many times over already. 
            Had Evan Slater, Brendon Thomas, or any other publishing figure head made a similar crack the responses would have been the same.
            Fortunately, they have a modicum of tact that Cote never has. But at least he owns that character deficit.

        • Al Baydough

          I understand why you would respond in this way. I do not respect it. 

          I understand that you are a big fan of Hunter S. Thompson. Perhaps you should seek to emulate what made him so great among the New Journalists rather than do a poor job of copping his pop culture public persona. It is one thing to live an animated life but quite another to choose to be nothing more than a cartoon.
          Generation of Swine indeed. 

  • Winston Smith
  • RobWelch

    Thoughtfully expressed, it takes a lot of courage to be honest. So refereshing to read an article that scratches below the veneer of supestardom typically presented by the surf media.

  • Blasphemy Rottmouth

    And now the dominos begin to fall. Way to step outside Chas Smith’s herd of empty-headed sheep Mr. Endo. Huzzah!

  • JBee

    I think one of the main problems here is that the surf industry and the good old boys truly don’t know how to fix the problems.  It is the blind leading and partying with the blind. They are too proud and/or ignorant to do what needs to be done and reach out for some restructuring.  Why are the athletes on the world tour allowed to compete without physical exams at least annually?  Why is there no health insurance offered by sponsors? These men and women need to be treated at least as good as the racehorses that they are.   I guess it is easier to sell them to a glue factory when they trip and fall.

  • Steve Shearer

    This article should be tatooed on every industry lickspittle and surf media stool pigeons body.

    Balanced, well researched and ultimately damming.

    If this doesn’t bring about some change in an industry grown fat on a culture of insularity and cheap lies disseminated by a compliant media as truth then nothing will.

    Bravo Ted.

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  • Nick Carroll

    Good job boys.

    The faint horror of that last line of Artie’s: “It’s almost like a marketing tool.”

  • bozo the clown

    hey this is getting serious……..
    These guys have bookmakers making book on most events these days and you are telling me that drugged up and wasted surfers are surfing and competing  without any testing regime in place?
    How does this sit with the mighty and august gurus of the ASP?
    I’m certain a multi point, world wide drug testing regime is going to be announced soon and that will calm all the frayed nerves.
    Shit man there are  $$$$$ involved here ……can’t have hippies and stoners wasting all that good promotional work by the marketing department.

  • Kel

    Thanks Ted and Zach for pursuing with this topic. You, your article and The Enertia deserve a round of applause. 

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  • Jesmarín Puente

    Very good article; Basically what we see here is that since the  beginning of surfing, the rebellious youth image and culture has been used by the multi-billion dollar surfing industry to exploit professional surfing. Pro-Surfers in turn fall into their own problems as a result of living a life away from human reality. The only way to change those things is for the organization of surfing to become part of the Olympic movement. Every nation could then ensure a system where their representative athletes are held to high standards of conduct and fair play, discarding the merely commercial use of their image. Sport is an infinite tool of union for humanity, as it does not exclude race, religion or politics, and can be used to fight serious problems that plague society.

  • Juan_morey

    yeah cause christian fletcher is the opinion we need, you gotta be fucking kidding me. Suprise he couldn’t conjour up any racist shit in this interview.

  • Chris Cote

    Do I still get to be on a poster?

    • Al Baydough

      The jester is also the enabler.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000019508418 Debra A. More

    Good article, I loved to just watch him surf, no sound, just him and the waves.  I am very sorry for your loss but I am glad for the honesty about it.  We all know someone who uses drugs and it is up to them to change what they don’t want in their life.  I am no-one to judge anyone.   He was/is amazing to me still.

  • Evan

    Awesome article. Great journalism. Couldn’t find details like these surrounding AI’s death anywhere else.