In the surf industry, you don’t mention Kelly Slater’s name in vain. It’s like a bad boarding school where the class president is given unconditional, ridiculous praise by all of the underclassmen regardless of the fact that he never seems to graduate. So brace yourselves, ye nasty hoard of online bile-spewers: I’ve got a dissenting opinion. It’s time for Slater to retire. I wish it didn’t have to be this way, but for the sake of the ASP World Tour, perhaps for the sake of competitive surfing as an entire paradigm, the time has come for him to take a bow.
I can’t be the only person thinking that. In fact, everyone who isn’t directly employed by Quiksilver should be thinking that. Before you skewer me as a Slater hater (which I’m not) or a cynic (which I’ve been accused of in the past), allow me to explain. I love seeing Slater surf, but I’m weary of watching him compete. Even more, I’m sick to death of watching other surfers fail to raise their games to challenge him. I’ve argued in the past that they need to step it up. This is not the same as needing to surf better. The level of surfing on Tour is fantastic, but the level of competition against the big bald boogeyman is abysmal. Either the other ‘CTers have been unable to gain ground in their mental games, or the judges won’t allow it. Either way, Slater is not to blame, unless you wonder why he is still trying to win titles at all. What will another one prove? That he’s the best ever? He achieved that long ago. Even number ten seemed like more of a marketing coup than a real milestone – a neat number to put on a hat. There is nothing to prove and no one to prove it against. At some point, more people than not stop caring and begin to see Kelly Slater as a status quo champion. I would argue that happened in 2011 for Slater, and the last title that meant anything was in 2008. Can you guess why?
Follow the trail of drugs and silence to a hotel room in Dallas. When the surf mags look back fifty years from now, they will say that this era of pro surfing died on November 2, 2010 in that lonely Texas hotel room with Andy Irons. When Irons died, the Tour lost the only man who wanted to win more than Kelly Slater and, therefore, the only real competitive tension in professional surfing. Who can replace him? Jamie O’Brien has the fire, but neither the focus, nor the mental strength to hold it together as a long-term competitor. Dane Reynolds might be the best on a board, but has trouble admitting he wants to win. Adriano De Souza has no trouble admitting it, but not the ability to pull it off, and the added disadvantage of being disliked by many simply because he’s Brazilian. Who’s left? Joel Parkinson doesn’t seem to have the head game. Mick Fanning does, but his yeomanly approach to wave riding makes him hard to support. Jordy Smith could possibly do it, but his performances have been mercurial for the last two years and he seems to suffer from a quarter/semifinal block. Julian Wilson and Owen Wright are the anointed ones, but they have yet to prove anything to anyone besides their sponsors and their mothers. John John Florence and Gabriel Medina have some growing up to do. Perhaps they will be ready when Florence wholeheartedly drops his second “John.”
Every new generation of athletes must overthrow their forbearers; otherwise, there is an asterisk next to their accomplishments. The Momentum generation destroyed their predecessors, and most of them have, in time, been cannibalized by the two (three?) successive generations. But these boys have never been able to definitively dethrone the king. Every time Slater takes another title, he paradoxically proves not that he has gotten better, but that the surfers on Tour aren’t good enough. Once again, this is not a reflection of their surfing talent, it is a reflection of their competitive acumen – it’s the difference between being a great surfer and a great competitive athlete. Although Slater undoubtedly still sits at the top of the performance game, he is no longer beating all of these guys because he is a better surfer than them; he’s beating them by being a better competitor.
I’m not sure if anyone is to blame for this, per say. In some ways, the current Tours is a reflection of Slater’s entire competitive mentality. It has grown up with him, at times been directly shaped by him, and is uniquely suited to him. If every other surfer maintained the physical and mental regimen of Slater – remember this is the guy who once had a file on every surfer on tour that held notes on how to beat each one – it would be a fantastic tour. But they don’t, perhaps they can’t, and so we are in the difficult position of having a Tour in which one man endlessly thrives while everyone else simply tries to adapt. It’s dysfunctional and it’s God-awfully stale.
If you will allow me to refer to the boarding school analogy one more time, Slater shouldn’t be class president. He should be the principal of the whole damn thing. There are so many fantastic ways that he could contribute to surfing as an art, a pro sport, a business, and a culture that it’s hard to know where to start. From his position, these options might not be as interesting or as fun as whipping children in decent-to-great surf, but they are certainly much more necessary than another trophy to put on a case that has already grown farcically overloaded.