Deciding what stance in life we are going to take is more complicated than simply deciding if we are putting a goofy foot forward or a natural foot forward.

And as we decide how to approach our futures we choose role models to copy.

As a teenager, getting the latest copy of SURFER magazine meant more to me than getting tips on how to surf or ideas on where to travel when I grew up. I was looking for role models. At fifteen, I sat in school here in Wales, UK, in a German class, struggling to concentrate with a hot sun outside, sneaking glimpses of the new magazine and coming across the full-page spread of Skip Frye knee-paddling out at the Ranch. This photo later achieved iconic status. This photo also inspired me, and I dropped out of school to travel and surf in the age of Flower Power and hippies. Surfing actually kept me away from the drugs that many were exploring.

I drank in the role models the magazines offered. Nat, the Animal, Young – aggressive with a skilled, light touch as a power surfer. Wayne Lynch, gifted and ambivalent towards contests (today’s Dane Reynolds equivalent?).

Now that I’m older and have children of my own who surf, I think Kelly Slater’s professionalism and the general low-key behavior has influenced the image of surfers for the better. This clean-cut image has been built on the new professionalism that broke down the doors. It’s mitigated the Australian heavy charging, heavy drinking “animal” image and produced a new paradigm: the professional surfer, clean cut and well-behaved, who travels the world as an ambassador. It’s a bit clinical and not very full-bodied, but it’s a prototype lots of the young folks here emulate.

Back in the day the role model was less formed and a bit rougher – more about the search for nirvana on some new, undiscovered island of dreams. I guess most of the islands are discovered and relatively short plane rides away now. There are some alternative role models, non-contest surfers, lifestyle guys. There are also the darker role models.

I first became aware of the conflict between different role models when I heard Fred Hemmings, the 1968 World champion who became a State Governor of Hawaii, wondering why on earth surfers would use a petty thief as a role model. Fred was describing Miki Dora. As a young man myself, still searching, and as someone who’d been confused by the Miki Dora model, attracted and unattracted to it, Fred Hemmings’ comment gave me a line. I realized, perhaps a bit late, that I could pick and choose who to idolize and who to relegate.

As an older and more discerning person, I now wonder how much the surfing industry and particularly the surf clothing industry influences and creates new role models – and especially how many of these men and women are actually role models, and how much is just marketing.  It’s worrisome how far companies will go to close down adverse publicity that tarnishes the image they want people to buy (usually a clean cut one).

For instance, while watching the World Tour event from Portugal I was shocked to see a confrontation between the late Andy Irons and a water cameraman.  Irons, with a recent victory under his belt, had just lost his heat and was exiting the water. The camera panned across and caught Andy thrusting the nose of his board angrily at the cameraman. It looked, without any explanation, like a fit of pique because he’d lost. The cameraman had crossed Andy’s path earlier as he tried for the score he needed. The camera panned away quickly and the commentators clammed up after one or two “Oh’s.” It occurred to me then that what the panning camera caught didn’t fit the image that the overall broadcast wanted to portray. Of course, since then a lot has been written about image over substance, and how a stronger emphasis on substance might do some good.

Looking back, I realize how vulnerable I was as a teenager. I wasn’t very discerning as I searched for role models. I’d bought the dream of freedom in that photo of Skip Frye at the Ranch. Anyone SURFER Magazine highlighted was a legitimate role model. Very naïve of course – but teenagers are gullible.

Who is going to protect them today? It doesn’t appear that surf companies with their squeaky clean marketing campaigns and pathological avoidance of adversity can be trusted to do it. Widening out the market, with Nike and Target and other non-endemics can help open the discourse by spreading advertiser risk – offending and losing one advertiser is not such a problem if the market for advertising space is broader and more competitive.

Secondly, and more importantly I think, it comes down to the regulatory body. The Association of Surfing Professionals sets the standard here. When Sunny Garcia runs up the beach chasing Neco Padaratz, or a frustrated surfer is aggressive towards a water cameraman it should not be hushed up in any way for appearances’ sake. The United States Tax authorities didn’t hush up Sunny’s conviction and jail sentence; they let the system make an example of him. In other sports if a player attacks an onlooker, a referee or a fellow competitor it’s dealt with publicly and thoroughly, and openly, in front of the press.

If a surfer wants to be in the public eye, he needs to be willing to be publicly disciplined. This can help the surfer. Sports stars who get disciplined by the sports authority, dropped and sent to rehab by their club are likely to be grateful in the end, and it can save lives. It’s worth repeating and thinking about those few words: it can save lives.  And not just the athlete’s, but also by sending a message to kids about the dangers of such a lifestyle.

I think the ASP should test surfers for drugs at every major contest. Aberrant behavior should be highlighted and dealt with seriously. Sanctions and offenders should be publicized.

Would we want to cover up a surfing celebrity who took part in a jihadi bombing? Or what about a big name surfer who was caught, like too many Catholic Priests, manhandling little children in the villages of Indonesia?

Could the ASP make the mistakes that the Catholic Church made and cover up for the sake of appearances? I suggest pulling in an Eliott Ness type character from another sport – maybe long distance cycling or Olympic field events.

And why do all of this? Because surfing is more than a sport, It’s a lifestyle. And if our surfing media are going to model lifestyles with heroes to suit, they need to be genuine heroes, because the young will always be impressionable. We need to make sure the role models we present are genuine, effective and real, just like surfing itself.


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