On Saturday, August 18th, we held our first-ever EVOLVE Summit. We had never done anything like this before, so we didn’t really know how it would go. Hopes high and managed expectations. We did have energy and enthusiasm in spades, though, so we just hoped for the best. And we were absolutely floored by the assembly of incredibly intelligent, grounded, and fun people who showed up and candidly wore their hearts on their sleeves with the sole intention of sharing their passions for things they believe in most.
Sal Masekela coated the room with his honey-filled voice. Tom Carroll shed a few tears masked unsuccessfully by his trademark low-set hat. Caroline Gleich and Leah Dawson made the whole room swell simultaneously with happiness and outrage as they shared some of the disgusting challenges they’ve experienced exclusively on account of their sex. Greg Long, Jeremy Jones, and Forrest Shearer discussed how athletes can best serve and protect our environment. There were many others, all of which you’ll see in the coming week, who attended the first-annual EVOLVE Summit, but one moment stood out above the rest: in front of a rapt audience, Tom Carroll and Sal Masekela had a brutally honest conversation about Tom’s decision to boycott pro surfing through the 1985 Gunston 500 because of apartheid, South Africa’s prevailing system of racial discrimination.
It was an awkward conversation in moments. It was humbling. It was sad and encouraging and beautiful. It was two people telling one of the most important and underappreciated stories in professional surfing – one that is still raw, delicate, and close to both of their hearts.
Our first-ever summit, EVOLVE, for those of you who may have missed it (don’t worry, there’s always next year!), is a “gathering that features world premieres of powerful short films, panels that pair thought-leaders from different spheres of outdoor culture to tackle our most pressing topics, and world-class live music to mobilize innovators in our space as a force for good like never before.”
Ultimately, we set the table for some interesting and important conversations between individuals on the forefront of each topic, and we were absolutely blown away by what followed.
For over a year, we’ve been working on a short film about Tom Carroll’s boycott. Unimaginably, what he did hasn’t been extensively celebrated in surf culture. It’s somewhat under the radar, when, in our view, it should be a defining moment of his career – possibly even more substantial than the snap at Pipe that redefined power surfing. We’re not alone in that thinking. Years after Carroll’s stand, Nelson Mandela wanted to talk with Tom about what he did.
We premiered the first version of our film at EVOLVE. And assuming we can get the i’s dotted and tees crossed, we’re hoping you’ll be able to see it here soon.
For those of you who may not know the story, here’s a quick explanation of what happened, courtesy of the film’s producer, Zach Weisberg:
“At the time, apartheid was alive and well in South Africa, and every time Tom visited to compete, he felt like something was terribly wrong. He saw Hawaiian Dane Kealoha, one of his heroes, denied entry to bars on account of his skin tone. On a drive to one of the region’s many world-class waves, he noticed that his driver would intentionally veer toward black civilians in the streets as a form of entertainment. Carroll felt disgusted. Continuing to compete in a surf contest where blacks were not allowed to enjoy the sand or ocean not only felt trivial, it felt repulsive. So, as a defending two-time world champion, he took a stand. He vowed not to return to South Africa until all races could legally enjoy the same privileges that he did. A handful of pros like Tom Curren, Cheyne Horan, and others followed suit, but his decision wasn’t unanimously embraced by surfing. He was fined by the ASP, and many pros and brands either expressed apathy or dissent about what he considered to be an apolitical, humanitarian stand in South Africa.”
Tom Carroll comes from a different stock. Kelly Slater described him to Sal Masekela as “a transformed, enlightened, caring individual who escaped the pitfalls of stardom and fleeting moments for a deep and meaningful connection to the world he loves.”
He spent four years competing in South Africa, and in those years, what he saw weighed heavily on him. “It was deeply disturbing; some of those kinds of behavior from one human being to the next, just solely through the color of their skin,” he told Masekela at EVOLVE. “It just didn’t make any sense whatsoever. It doesn’t make any sense. What is going on in this place for people to behave so cruelly towards each other?”
Growing up in the Carroll household had a large part in shaping who Tom grew up to be—a person who could stand behind what he could plainly see was wrong. “I came from a home where there was no such thing as that kind of judgment or those kinds of actions towards another human being,” he explained. “I’m lucky [that I] lived in that environment where my brain was mapped in that fashion.”
In one of the most touching parts of the interview, Tom spent a few minutes on stage remembering the moment he met with Mandela. All these years later, he teared up at the memory. “Nelson Mandela turned around to me and said, ‘Thank you, I needed all the support I could get. At that time, I was in Robben Island,'” Carroll said. “When I made the decision, it wasn’t really for him—it was for the whole of humanity. But when he said it, it hit a really strong chord.”
Of course, as is the case when athletes step outside of their defined roles as players in sport and choose to voice their opinions on issues important to them, some people get upset.
Masekela addressed this idea succinctly.
“Let’s be frank,” said Masekela. “We are in a weird ass time in this country, and there’s this conversation happening that there’s this idea that people with incredible natural ability and superhuman technique at the sports that they love should only shut up and play the sports that we clap for them to participate in, and I can’t help but feel a mirroring in your story to where we sit at in America today…”
Carroll lost sponsors and maybe even a third world title as a result of his decision.
“There was some support,” he said. “Tom Curren supported it. Martin Potter supported it. Gary Elkerton supported it. There were some other mishaps along the way. For me, being 24 and a young Australian male particularly, I wasn’t great at communication. I didn’t understand how to vocalize what I was going to do before I did it. I didn’t tell anyone that I really needed to tell… I felt that it was such a surprise when I did it that it threw people out. I wouldn’t recommend doing it the way I did it. I definitely call upon people to do it right… but that wasn’t my style, I guess.”
Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. And although Carroll might feel as though there were a few things he could have changed when he took his stand, Sal Masekela said it best: “If you had done it any other way, it wouldn’t have happened. People wouldn’t have listened. You made a choice to separate what you do and who you were. You decided to stand up and say, ‘This is who I am, and I can’t hide behind what I do.'”
And we’re so glad he did.
Look for separate video releases from each panel at the 2018 EVOLVE Summit this week.