We are five days into the waiting period at J-Bay, and all is quiet in the Southern Indian Ocean. The cemetery silence has no doubt wafted in and taken up residence the offices of the ASP where the staff alternates between checking Sean Collins’ updated forecasts and seeing if the HR people at Quiksilver, Billabong, and Rip Curl have received their resumes. Well, maybe they’re not sending out resumes just yet, but they damn well should be, because the wolves are at the door. The rats are jumping ship, and, hell, this is actually one of the good stops on tour. It’s about time to stop praying and starting dipping the ol’ pen in your own blood. The devil is always listening, if you come correct.
The other day, a non-surfing editor asked me how one becomes a professional surfer. No such thing, I told her. “Professional” and “surfer” are contradictory terms. The only people who have ever been able to manage the combination with some degree of success were the thugs running hash between Indonesia and the rest of the world in the ‘70s. And even most of them were just as likely to smoke their entire shipment before actually completing a delivery. So for clarity’s sake, let’s agree on a working definition for the word “professional.” The Oxford Dictionary lists three definitions. Here is the second:
“A person engaged in a specified activity, especially a sport, as a main paid occupation rather than as a pastime.”
Already, that poses a problem because a great many “professional surfers” don’t make enough money to feed and clothe themselves from what they make surfing – much less to buy booze. In surfing, as in life, the green is concentrated at the top of the tree, and those branches are well guarded.
Here’s the third definition:
“A person competent or skilled in a particular activity.”
Well, surfers are skilled at surfing. But can anyone name another professional sport where it is considered exceptional to cross-train? Or a sport where athletes show up to compete drunk or hungover? (Darts doesn’t count.) Compare the average routine of a pro surfer to Manny Pacquiao or even a top-tier high school quarterback, and you will discover that a dash of Cross-Fit no longer looks impressive.
Some argue that the hijinks are what make surfing, well, surfing. Which might be “pro” surfing’s essential truth. But if it is, don’t expect the same legitimacy of, say, football or boxing. If surfers are to forever remain mischievous hooligans, they should own it, and for Christ’s sake, stop the whining.
“Professional” doesn’t come with caveats – like you don’t have to show up to compete if you don’t feel like it. Kelly Slater knows this. He single-handedly aligned surfing with “the p-word” in a respectable way. And he did it by being the most committed guy in the game. But even he can’t bother going to J-Bay, and no one can bother trying to make him. That’s like Rafael Nadal skipping the US open because he wants to grab a few practice sets with his buddies in Majorca. Oh wait, no it isn’t: Nadal plays a pro sport and Slater is a surfer.
Slater’s past dedication to the tour is unimpeachable, but if he no longer has that fire, should he be allowed to simply show up when he chooses when there are hundreds of guys fighting tooth and nail for a spot on the World Tour? It would be tough for anyone to pass up maxing cloud break in order to go to work, but that’s what a professional would do.
Which brings us back to the essence of the argument: the very nature of surfing is antithetical to professionalism. There is a distinct possibility that surfing is not at its best when it is broadcast on a megatron, but instead finds its truest expression in the words of old men shooting the breeze at a beach barbecue.
And that is okay. Magical even. But no one in this crazy world of ours will willingly pass up the opportunity to make a buck – or a lot of bucks by employing the simple joys of coastal people to move merch.
Onward and upward to the future: Dane Reynolds. Absent again. He may have legitimate reasons for skipping the first four comps of the year, and since he’s most people’s favorite surfer, he deserves the benefit of the doubt. But this is still ugly behavior. All he really needs to do is commit one way or another. His ostensible angst about selling out and losing liberties as an artist/performer is undercooked, overhyped, and about ten years too late. Professionals make decisions. Hell, grown-ups make decisions, and only fools and mothers have pity for pampered, whiny white boys. A tortured conscience often catalyzes great art, but when you are a Quicksilver PR man who just signed a six-year, $23 million deal, the good people at Oxford have another word for it: farce.
A comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay and typically including crude characterization and ludicrously improbable situations.
That’s the word of the day, my friends, and it’s quickly becoming the perfect description of competitive professional surfing – this toothless monster that barks god-awfully loud but when it comes time to bite just gums and slobbers on whoever has the deepest pockets in their distressed jeans. You could blame the ASP, but let’s be real, they have always just been the whipping boy of the industrial surfing complex, and the Big Three are as happy as methed-up foster parents to beat the poor saps at the ASP black and blue as long as it keeps people distracted from the real issue.
Which is the marketing, of course. That’s what this is about, that’s what it has always been about. Forget the competition and the passion and the amazing performances. Surfing must sell, because if it doesn’t, this whole pyramid scheme that we call surf culture in the 21st century collapses and we are left without our pretty wetsuits and our 24-hour web cams, and boat trips and Tavarua, and all the other things that make being first world people with disposable incomes worth the taxes we pay for the defense budgets we use to get our oil. And nobody wants that. We want heroes. We’ll spend money for heroes. And what better way to create them, to keep them relevant year after year than the World Tour? But that is also the Tour’s greatest weakness: Reynolds and Slater don’t need to show up in South Africa and dance to the ruckus of the vuvuzelas. They are already heroes, and more importantly, they know who their real organ grinders are. As long as they dance for Quiksilver, they are the best surfers in the world.