Surfing’s Culture of Silence
“Platforms are judged by the value generated by their ecosystem, not by the value the platforms directly capture.” -Dalton Caldwell
(Please be advised, this post contains explicit language from Twitter feeds.)
The language of surfing has long been dominated by the motion and gestures of the body. The narratives we construct, the legends, the mythologies, all originate in the storytelling prowess of the body-in-motion.
It is perhaps understandable then that words, in this cultural context, have been a long time penetrating the depths of the spiral of silence in our surf culture.
In some cultures, silence can be a form of deference, of respect. In others, it is a constructed means through which those in power remain in power. This is called “agenda control” and it is constructed in surf culture via sponsorships, media exposure, contest results (amateur and professional events), and industry jobs.
“Good” behavior and communication is rewarded while “bad” behavior and communication is largely excluded (though it may first be exploited for media ratings or used as a “learning opportunity” for others who may be tempted to express culturally dissonant feelings). The internet itself has allowed dissonant voices to rupture the taught surface of constructed surf culture, as well as general access to video technology, and the DIY movement. The tone of some of these dissonant voices can be understood in terms of a rupture: a discontinuity in an otherwise seemingly harmonious cultural paradigm, a gesture that has the unsettling quality of “bursting a bubble”. Ruptures are where silence congregates.
It is largely due to our tradition of institutionalized silence towards those experiences that do not bolster the status quo or may be potentially damaging to the image of surfing, that those who finally emerge from this silence may tend to do so with a surprisingly violent tone and defensive verbal posturing. Some, who have an alternate cultural tradition to cull from, have begun the imposing task of inserting through certain ruptures, their own narratives, thus expanding the cultural experience of surfing in artistic and broad strokes (see White Wash, the documentary). I expect we will be seeing more of this type of historical expansion in years to come.
Some recent events and ruptures:
-Bobby Martinez and Brodie Carr
After a decision by the ASP to change the format of its ranking system, Bobby Martinez let fly a colorful diatribe via live webcast at the New York Quiksilver Pro in September of 2011. He was subsequently disqualified from the competition and suspended from the world tour by the ASP Rules and Disciplinary Committee, citing Article 151 in the ASP rulebook which states that “All Surfers, shall not AT ANY TIME damage the image of the sport of surfing.”
This incident was much discussed for its brazenness and was ironically bolstered by a video made later by Quiksilver* when the ASP damaged its own image (“the sport of surfing”) by miscalculating Kelly Slater’s 11th world title in the November 2011 world tour event in San Francisco. Brodie Carr’s resignation as CEO of the ASP can be seen in light of these particular articles, some of the most oblique, open-to-interpretation articles in the rulebook.
It should be noted that “the image of the sport of surfing” and the ASP pro tour and all officiants, sponsors, etc. are here intrinsically linked. Paying your membership as a competitor in the ASP effectively silences any public criticism, including “implications of dishonesty” (see also Article 154: Verbal Assaults on any “ASP Judge, opponent, Event sponsor, ASP Management member, ASP Representative, ASP Board of Directors member, spectator, member of the media or ASP Rules & Discipline Committee member.”) This is interesting to keep in mind when one reads “anonymous accounts” criticizing Big Surfing, et al on social networking sites:
“Without restricting the application of this Article, ‘damage to the sport of surfing’ will include any comments broadcast from social media accounts that the Surfer is responsible for.” -Art. 151
If an actively competing professional surfer wishes to analyze or criticize the “sport of surfing” one really has no choice but to walk away from the tour or do so anonymously online.
Was this a rupture? No. This was an event that unsettled the ASP and fueled Martinez’s sponsor’s “F*$k The World” branding. Though the ripples can still be felt nearly a year later as the ASP struggles to find its legs, these events sank no deeper into Big Surfing culture than the ASP itself. *In fact, Quiksilver took advantage of Martinez’s commentary in an ironic twist after the Slater world title miscalculation, using Martinez’s voice to utter an indirect, gleeful criticism when it would not.
 As we will see from the next event, the weakening of the ASP seems to foreshadow a shift in Big Surfing culture towards a sponsored freesurfer ethos that hides behind the individuality, personality, and lifestyle of its employees (e.g. surf ambassadors). Rather than focusing on the strength of The Brand Name and what It has accomplished, this shift focuses instead on The Personality and Lifestyle of its surf ambassadors. The Brand effectively positions itself a safe distance from criticism in this way. If Branded surfers are 100% “individuals” then they will bear the brunt of their “choices” when the reality is that the combination of industry pressure, innuendo, sponsorship contracts, and future employment within the industry itself form a matrix, a tightly pulled fabric that shapes the direction of many of these surf ambassadors’ movements from a very young age. Silences and punctuated statements by pro surfers are to be considered in light of these explicit and implicit influences.
In December of 2011, the ASP released the list of the top 34 men who would be competing for the ASP world championship title in 2012. Dane Reynolds was not on this list. In response to his cut from the world title race, Dane wrote “A Declaration of Independence” . Rather than being a rupture of significance, this event was more a statement of a shift in direction, a shift the surf industry has been capitalizing on for a number of years. Ted Endo explains how this declaration was ultimately more a Borg-like assimilation of the individual-Reynolds’ “choice” (and others like it) into a larger surf industry shift in his article on The Inertia, Freesurfers™ and Selling Out.
Events like those illustrated by Martinez and Reynolds do not rupture the fabric of Big Surfing culture precisely because of the inability to push beyond the influence of sponsorship to point to the power dynamic at work therein. Regardless of intent, because of the weaving of the sponsorship dynamic itself, their actions are assimilated and used for the benefit of their sponsors. These actions bolster, rather than puncture, the taught surface of Big Surfing culture as such. Additionally, it must be noted that it isn’t the ASP itself that requires the rupture, though feel the impact of ruptures it must, but the businesses that animate the competitive tours (amateur and professional tours alike). If an event does not penetrate beyond the ASP, it is not a rupture, it is a media-event. This underscores the importance of context and timing with such outbursts and declarations.
One of the most heartbreaking examples of a rupture was the way the death of Andy Irons was (mis)handled by Big Surfing culture. Without belaboring the issue, it is enough to point to the resounding silence that met his death and the subsequent shift in surf culture that came about because of those, pro surfers and anonymous commenters alike, who chose to openly discuss the issues of drug abuse on tour, ASP drug testing, and who should, or should not, have done more to prevent the tragedy (please see commentary above regarding “the surfer as individual”  ). The AI dialogue will remain open indefinitely, as all ruptures must. It is the depth and breadth of the dialogue surrounding this incident that marks it as a rupture. There is no part of Big Surfing culture, or the power dynamics it contains, that are left untouched by this dialogue.
-Paul Sargeant (“Sarge”)
An article emerged in 2008 that was investigated and written by Mr. Fred Pawle, a journalist for The Australian, that documented a figure and an incident that had the potential to cause a rupture in surf culture in the early 2000s: The Bottomless Vortex of Indulgence. It is a testament to the culture of silence endemic at all levels of Big Surfing that the incident was contained… until now, perhaps?
(Pawle’s article contains all the details needed for the next portion of this analysis. I hope you will take the time to read it, both for the effort of the investigation on Pawle’s part, and the events and circumstances it exposes.)
While Martinez’s suspension from tour elicited over 2,200 Facebook “likes” and a series of articles on various websites and social networking sites, The Bottomless Vortex of Indulgence which discusses Sarge’s banishment from the sport as the official ASP media liaison and, as Pawle contends, “surfing’s greatest photo journalist”, has garnered only 6 FB “likes” (as of this writing) and was never mentioned in surf media outside of Pawle’s article. Perhaps this would be different if the non-solicited sex act that Sarge performed on passed-out surf journalist Adam Blakey had been recorded on video, as Sarge had suggested when he was caught in the act.
It was an incident outside of surfing, the Sandusky/Penn State debacle, that provided the impetus for the Sarge dialogue to (re)emerge recently. Tweeting about the Sandusky issue, Kelly Slater found himself amidst a flurry of questions about Sarge. The dialogue spun out from there.
First, it is important to note that Pawle, during the course of his research, found no evidence of pedophilia with regard to Sarge.
It is also extremely important to note that there is a distinct difference between pedophiles and homosexuals. Additionally, heterosexual males who have a difficult time with the idea of a homosexual male being around when they are half naked (“in surf-uniform”) ought to take a moment and ask themselves if this may have more to do with not wanting to feel like the females they ogle than anything truly nefarious on the part of the homosexual male. One of the fascinating aspects of this fear-of-the-very-presence-of homosexuality is a bizarre narcissism that expects “the homosexual-in-question will want me and therefore I must assert my intense dislike and/or change my behavior around said homosexual to prevent the inevitable.” Again, this says more about the homophobe him/herself than it does about said homosexual or homosexuality in general.
Surf culture has rarely, if ever, had the opportunity to discuss openly many of these distinctions with regard to homosexuality, despite the fact that for decades now women have been accused of being lesbians (regardless of the fact that women in general tend to have more fluid sexuality without falling into one rigid sexual category or another) on tour as par for the course. I believe that where we are now as a culture is quite different from where we were when Sarge was in his prime (1980s) and that we can have conversations about these distinctions without indulging homophobia or negative stereotyping.
All this being said, it was the culture of silence that surrounded the Sandusky/Penn State debacle that became the true focal point of the dialogue that emerged around Sarge recently on Twitter.
This culture of silence is one that rewards image over truth, silence over honesty, and serves those in power rather than those who are the victims of all the silence allows (e.g. “indiscretions”). This implicitly enforced silence is especially difficult for male victims. We are not as accustomed to male victims as we are to female victims. In some sense we expect that males ought to be able to “handle themselves” somehow, that they don’t need the same protections as females when it comes to sexual harassment or sexual molestation.
With regard to Sarge, we might even say there was institutionalized sexual harassment at play and (at least one confirmed act of) sexual molestation given the fact that so many within the professional surf culture (as we now know via the Twitter conversations that began July 24th) knew that Sarge had behavioral problems that required locked doors at times, even if it was “just” when he was drunk. Regardless, Sarge was given privileged media credentials by various surf media and was given a power position within the ASP itself.
Those involved in the recent Twitter conversation included Kelly Slater [who agreed to an interview with Pawle and @RachelisWINNING that has yet to occur, if it does at all, after inquiring Tweets about his lack of commentary within his own sport],
Shea Lopez [who tweeted an extended “twitter story of my troubled friend sarge” on July 29th. It can still be read on his Twitter feed. Though he could provide no concrete evidence, Lopez said that he had heard “crazy stories” that made him “stay away at night”. Lopez mentioned that “sarge had his hands in eveerything[sic] asp at that time and knew how everything worked.” He painted a picture of Sarge as a predator who took advantage of the party culture of pro surfing at the time and young surfers. Slater and Lopez both stated that they avoided mishap with Sarge because of their choice not to engage in the party lifestyle of the tour.],
and even Paul Fisher),
The way Sarge was “handled” all this time, when rumors, warnings, and locked doors followed him everywhere, is what one expects from cultures of silence: silence, avoiding, and ignoring until the behavior is too bad to be ignored. In this case, until Adam Blakely courageously spoke up after being victimized by a very broken human being.
The results of such courage? Sarge was banished from the ASP, offered a second chance of returning to the ASP after a time, and largely coddled by those who continued to refer to his “challenges” as if it were he that was the victim, not Blakely, and certainly not the two anonymous professional surfers who approached Robert Gerard of the ASP Rules and Discipline Committee to discuss “previous sexual encounters” with Sarge during the investigation into the Blakely incident. The question “How many more victims were there?” is not an illogical, nor a farfetched one.
The one reported incident in 2005 illustrates a stunning inconsistency within an institution that takes itself so seriously that it suspends those who damage “the image of the sport of surfing” with mere words or has a CEO resign in the face of an embarrassing miscalculation. The fact that Sarge was offered the option to discuss a review of the ban and a potential return to the ASP after admitting to committing a non-consensual sexual act while serving as the official media liaison for the ASP is simply mind-boggling!
There may still be concern or perhaps confusion on the part of some as to whether or not Sarge posed an actual threat. After all, with our (seemingly) more enlightened, modern 20/20 vision peering back in time, might we not ask, was it really so bad that a male surf photo journalist was making advances on young surfer boys? Here is where we must parse the difference between wanted and unwanted advances (as we do with consensual and non-consensual sexual acts) by those who hold power, those with the social capital of a surf journalist/ASP media liaison, comparable to a sports agent today:
“‘Keep in touch, let us know how you go, send me your results’. If they went half any good, [Sarge would] ring Billabong or Quiksilver or Volcom or whoever, and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this young guy, what’s the chance of getting a sponsorship?'” -Bowes, The Bottomless Vortex of Indulgence
This has more to do with unchecked abuses of power than it does with homo vs. hetero behavior. In fact, it might serve us well to insert young female surfers in the place of the male surfers and ask ourselves whether or not this behavior is still acceptable as such.
There are some that may disagree and contend that Sarge’s behavior is a direct result of the homophobia of the environment itself. While the environment did play a role in Sarge’s behavior, it did so in a more complex way than can be attributed to a homophobic culture alone.
Those who struggle with their sexuality have an increased chance of maladaptive behavior and mental hardships, and when a challenged internal landscape is awash in an environment replete with partying, drugs, an all access pass, connections and social capital, and silence, no good can come of it. Young people trying to fit into new environments are especially vulnerable to these scenarios, males and females alike.
In our beloved culture of silence, we have allowed to be constructed a system that protects those in power. When an incident rises that threatens the integrity of the institution, it is banished and not spoken of (a trend that is similar to other cultures of silence that protect predators). This is accomplished through vested self-interest/preservation and a belief that “someone else will say something”, a phenomenon known in social psychology as “The Bystander Effect”. It is only after the incident is made public that the question “why didn’t someone say something?!” is raised and must be answered.
As Slater tweeted about Penn State, we are dealing with people on every side of these situations. People who knew something, people who didn’t say anything, people who were the victims, people who were endearing, lovely, predators…
…yet this view doesn’t acknowledge or contend with how those people who are absolutely mired within an institution shy away from rocking the boat, or think it is someone else’s responsibility to speak up, or think their concern is not warranted… that the rumors are just rumors.
In the case of Sarge, we simply don’t know how many more victims there are, their ages, or even if there are any more victims at all. We do know that Sarge was never prosecuted and that he has not chosen to pursue re-entry into the world of surfing at this point… and that there is still a fog of silence surrounding him.
It is a wonder to me that there are not more instances of sexual harassment or sexual molestation on the record in Big Surfing, male or female. The saying, “It’s quiet… too quiet” fits the mood precisely. Until we hear from any (potential) victims themselves, there is very little else that can be done save underscoring that if there are any victims out there, they will be supported and heard should they choose to speak. Standing up when others are silent, is the most heroic, courageous act one can do in his/her lifetime.
What ruptures like these allow is the opportunity to engage in dialogue about a number of things that are taboo subjects within Big Surfing culture. They also, more importantly, point to the power structure itself and question the legitimacy and validity of those who hold that power. They provide opportunities to construct questions that require a deeper look into the dark corners we often take for granted and demand answers beyond “it was the individual’s choice”. There are too many events and ruptures these days to gloss over. There is something unhealthy at work and it is embedded in the very dynamic our young surfers crave as they struggle toward professionalism.
That ours is a culture of silence is unquestionable. It has been constructed as such. Those who know the truth are silenced until after they are out of the limelight and if they wish to return or be heralded as a part of the legacy of professional surfing, they must tow the company line. Those who do choose to speak usually do so only after they have left competition, lose their sponsorships, or any possible future in “the sport” altogether (when their influence on the culture is waning)… after all, silence is written into the holy book of rules itself.