When Californian surf journalist Brad Melekian was commissioned to write an obituary of three-time world champion Andy Irons, who died this month, he was surprised by the number of people who were keen to discuss the previously unreported troubled side of Irons’ short but brilliant life.
“Every single person I talked to, even those who were unwilling to talk on the record, said there was more to it (than a mere obituary),” Melekian said. “I couldn’t ignore that.”
The eventual 4400-word story detailed two alarming drug and alcohol-related incidents: one when Irons almost died during a bender in Indonesia in 1999, and another when he became almost uncontrollably violent towards a friend in Fiji this year.
Irons’s volatility and self-destructiveness were not news to the “insular” world of pro surfing, Melekian wrote. “But they were kept under wraps by an unspoken but understood code of public silence.”
That code is a consequence of the surf-publishing business model. Surf journalists do not feel inclined to ask difficult questions because the sponsors of the stars they write about also provide most of the advertising revenue for their publications.
Melekian formerly edited Surfer magazine in California, but his investigation was commissioned and published by Outside, a general sports magazine.
“It’s not explicit, but it’s completely understood (in surf mags) that if you push too hard, there’s a fear that a company will pull its ads out,” Melekian told me.
Such stonewalling extends to the companies themselves. In the immediate aftermath of Irons’s death, his sponsor, Billabong, published a press release saying Irons had “reportedly been battling with dengue fever”.
This may or may not be true. Irons had indeed withdrawn from a surf contest in Puerto Rico through illness, and was on his way home when he died. But Melekian’s story reported that Irons had also been out partying with friends the night before he died. Elsewhere, it was reported that prescription-drug bottles were found in the room in which Irons died. A toxicology report is due next month.
Repeated attempts to discuss the issue with Billabong elicited this quote from a spokesman: “Andy was a true champion and, out of respect for his memory and the whole Irons family, we have no intention of participating in any speculation about him.”
Brodie Carr, the CEO of the Association of Surfing Professionals, which administers the sport, was at lunch in France when I called on Friday, and, despite two subsequent calls, didn’t call back.
Irons’s former manager, Blair Marlin, isn’t talking either. “I’m not in a place to comment on (Melekian’s story),” Marlin told me. “He wrote what he wanted to write. I’ve heard both sides of the story, of people who are upset by it and people who thought it was a good piece.”
Marlin is an active manager. I compiled a profile of Irons for a surfing magazine in 2008, when Irons was behaving especially erratic, and Marlin refused access to the star. He also insisted on vetting interviews with people close to Irons before they were published. Asked yesterday if the media had been overly constrained to publish the complexities of Irons’s life, Marlin said: “I don’t even care to discuss this right now. The Outside magazine piece came out before the toxicology report. Until it does, I can’t talk about it.”
Plenty of surf fans can, though. Melekian was “shocked” by the amount of positive feedback about the story from surfers and people in the industry.
“It was really well received,” he said. “People are feeling relieved that it finally came out.”
The narcotic tendencies of surfers is nothing new. The sport attracts athletes who are inclined to pursue extreme experiences, and those at the top are not always exceptions to this.
But the companies that traditionally run the sport are now mostly publicly listed, and there is more at stake than just the reputation of a few people in a fringe subculture.
Also, surfing is attracting investment from companies outside the traditional industry (Red Bull, Nike and Target have all become major sponsors), which may finally break the cozy relationship between the magazines and the industry.
“The sport is being infused with more money,” Melekian says. “That has to change everything. The athletes are being treated like real athletes, and that changes it from a small group . . . who are doing some oddball thing down the beach.”
As an anonymous contributor poignantly noted in an online forum attached to Melekian’s story: “I’ve partied with Andy before. We definitely weren’t close, but I’d been around him. Maybe I couldn’t have done anything for him on my own, but the surfing world as a whole and its party scene let one its brightest stars go. In a way, we’re all a little responsible.”