Reflections on the Death that Rocked Surfing
Andy Irons’ sudden and unexpected death at the age of 32 is a devastating tragedy, but it presents opportunity as well. As important as the legacy of Irons’ competitive career might be, it is a legacy that is his alone. Surfing, as a pastime, a sport, and an economic engine, might share in Irons’ legacy, but unlike an Irons victory at Pipe, this legacy will depend on the actions of others in response to this tragedy. This is where things get sticky.
Irons’ death provoked significant responses from three distinct, but interrelated parties: his family, the surf industrial complex and the surf media. His family’s response is not one to second-guess, but merits observation, especially the decision to delay the Coroner’s Report. Trouble arose, not from the way the Irons family dealt with the death of a loved one, but at the nexus of familial response, local culture and the public culture of professional surfing. In any family tragedy, there is an obligation to unite at the exclusion of the external world; this is part of grieving. In Hawaii there is an especially strong inclination to give families privacy in times of need or controversy. Cultural admonitions against butting into a family’s pilikea (worries) or against “talking stink” are strong; this is due in part to the strong influence of Japanese culture and its often stoic and private nature. In many ways, the familial reaction to Irons’ death was absolutely ordinary in this local context.
The salient familial response to Irons’ death is, of course, his wife Lyndie Irons’ Federal filing to delay the Coroner’s Report and the statements therein. In it she (no doubt with the concerted help of legal counsel) states:
“Based upon ‘leaks’ that have already occurred within the Tarrant County Medical
Examiner’s Office and the press reaction to those leaks, the branding of Andy Irons’
company will be immediately, irreparably and severely tarnished if the official autopsy
report is released at this time, when the coverage of this event by the press is at a
This is undoubtedly a truthful statement, but may not have been the most deft way to spin such unfortunate circumstances. Later, in a press release distributed by the family, Lyndie Irons expressed regret about her remark concerning “Andy’s brand.” Nonetheless, the remark was made.
That an expectant mother might be faced with a decision to delay the release of her husband’s autopsy report (let alone read it privately) is an inconceivably torturous scenario – whether the personalities involved are famous or not. Regarding publicity, Hawaii and surfing have not been good at reconciling surfing’s heightened popularity as it relates to contemporary economies or media cycles. Witness the tenterhooks that many top local surfers are on in reconciling their localism with the fact that entities from outside the state pay their salaries and have a stake in selling the local surf lifestyle to a broader public – a public which ostensibly will like what they see and desire to visit or stay, thereby compounding the crowding and cultural loss that localism ham-fistedly seeks to protect. How, then, is a grieving widow expected to consider the complexities of her famous husband’s social, representational and economic legacies? But consider them she must, and some might argue that delaying the publication of the Coroner’s Report did a disservice to Andy Iron’s brand and legacy by fueling runaway speculation and not honestly representing a public figure’s personal trials. Lyndie Irons wasn’t alone in needing to consider branding in light of Irons’ death, but ultimately she had the most at stake.
The attempt to protect the “Irons brand” and shut the door to the public’s prying gaze was an unfortunately predictable move by the companies that employed Irons. Advertising and sales tend to overlook personal shortcomings, so it’s no wonder that sponsored surfers’ and “brand ambassadors’” public personas are sacrosanct to those who own them. Did anyone expect Billabong, the corporation, to see this as anything but a PR problem? In fact, it would be irresponsible to Billabong’s shareholders if company execs viewed it in any other manner.
And although there is a “surf media” to potentially keep the industrial powers that be incheck and offer a better playbook in circumstances like these, it too failed. Were it a true Fourth Estate there might have been hope, but it has never been that. The only article of substance immediately after Irons’ death was Brad Melekian’s Outside Magazine piece. Outside is definitely not a surf rag. Fred Pawle, an Australian news writer, has written of Irons’ former manager refusing access to the star in 2008 when he was behaving especially “erratically” and insisting on “vetting interviews with people close to Irons before they were published.” It takes a lot of gall to ask that a newspaper journalist allow vetting of their work. But this illustrates what surf companies have come to expect of their media lapdogs. Simply put, surf media is in the pocket of a small group of powerful industry players. This is not news; the elephant has been in the room a long time. Tetsuhiko Endo described it well in his article earlier this month on this very web site.
But it didn’t have to be this way if both Irons’ family and the surf-industrial complex had been a little more sophisticated. Chas Smith, in a combative op-ed piece published May 20th on Surfing Magazine’s website said the following:
Golf and Hollywood and the French government can do whatever the fuck they want. They ain’t surfing. We are. We are small and selective and do not believe in the democratization of knowledge. We do what is right for us. And as the external media, journalists, tabloids, men’s magazines, angry internet frothers, hypocrites attempt to paint a picture of the man, working backwards from what they will eventually find on a toxicology report; and as they wax eloquent about theoretical industry pressure on the magazines to shut their collective mouth; and as they lecture and churn and decry and foam they can forever go to hell. Because, and again, we are a family. A diverse family, a dysfunctional family, a sometimes dark family but also a tight family. The best family.
When your “family” is so big that the New York Times writes a feature article about its inherent and structural sexism one might expect change. When one of its greatest practitioners dies unexpectedly and that death has been, in part, contributed to by substance abuse one also might expect change. And this is where surfing has an opportunity to both gain in sophistication and contribute to a publicly owned Andy Irons legacy. Acknowledging that professional surfers are not a race of super humans immune to human foibles and fallacies is not an admission of weakness or failure. In the case of substance abuse issues it may contribute to changing or even saving lives. Look what Jay Adams and Christian Hosoi have done in skateboarding by speaking publicly of their struggles with addiction – and certainly don’t forget “Fleahab.” There is a prominent contingent of surfers and surf companies who have no compunction in speaking of and advertising their Christianity, why not moderation and sobriety? Responsibility?
And the relationship between surf media and advertising doesn’t have to be a zero sum game. If the media were only slightly more divorced from corporate influences, advertisers could still finance junkets as long as they were plainly labeled as editorial advertising. Furthermore, stories that address real issues might improve a sorely damaged credibility. Imagine a teen reading that there are personal struggles and triumphs, individual and corporate crimes, environmental issues and solutions – in surfing too. I can’t see how that would detract from the eight glossy pages of an advertiser-financed, logo stamped Bali trip in a frothing teenager’s mind? Certainly, surfing doesn’t have to become civics, but it wouldn’t hurt to be informed by civics.
Surfing is in many ways anachronistic. The pursuit of riding waves has been famously regarded as selfish in our modern interconnected world. It slows one down from the hectic pace of contemporary life. It promotes adventure in a safety-obsessed world. It is physical activity in sedentary societies. It is openly sexist in a time when more working women hold college degrees than men. It quietly harbors an insidious racism as Caucasians become minorities in coastal states and nationwide. It is soundly homophobic as gay people are being allowed to serve in our military and marry. It whitewashes drug abuse when even high profile Republicans are acknowledging the failure of U.S. Drug policies of the last 40 years. On Main Street, Ozzie and Harriet have been dead a long time – far longer than Andy Irons, may he rest in peace. Let’s hope his death can help bring surfing into the future.