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Opinion: Can surfing have true equality?

02.27.20 – TAGS:

A few days ago Caroline Marks dropped a cool vid on her IG threading a nice drainer at Teahupoʻo. Thus, busting open the door of equality in surfing once again.

The message boards went wild from both sides of the conversation reminding us that this topic will indeed require further discussion. Never shy to offer an opinion, we decided to grab a vine and swing on in with our take on the subject.

It is complicated.

For starters, it would seem there are many ways to attempt to define this conversation. We thought it might be best to compartmentalize it just a bit as we see a few distinct areas of discussion, of which are often intertwined. It’s our opinion that when some of these points are incorrectly aligned a false narrative is allowed to take hold, of which we feel is actually hurting the overall conversation. With that in mind, we attempted to address each area as a separate discussion point.

Access: This is a very valid point in this conversation, but the solution can be complex. Many women (and men!) have made issue with the fact that it can be difficult to build skills at certain surf spots today simply because the local pack is impenetrable. Thus, the lack of a steeper learning curve for new and/or visiting participants. There have even been reports of open hostility towards female surfers at Mavericks, as well as other big wave locations. That said, we are pretty sure that just paddling out and bagging a set wave on an 8-10 ft day at Pipe is pretty much impossible regardless of gender, race or anything else. There is only one way to do that; you earn a spot in the lineup over time. Ask past, and probably future, WSL World Champion, Gabriel Medina, how many set waves he got this year on the North Shore outside of the WSL events he surfed. And, that is probably the same situation for most of the visiting CT pros. Men or women. On the contrary, you look at guys like Cam Richards, Keito Matsuoka, Brett Barley, and Balram Stack, among many others, who are definitely not locals by any means, who by showing up every year, being the first guy out, pushing in on anything, etc., these guys earned respect and a very coveted spot in the what might be some of the most competitive line-ups anywhere. Even local Moana Jones had to earn her spot. That’s how its always been and we think that’s how it should remain. The question then becomes: should anyone, male or female, be able to shortcut that tradition via some sense of entitlement or personal need? As we said, this one’s complicated. The pecking order of any line up is as sacred a tradition as there is in surfing, do we now throw that out the window?

Equality: This word alone creates its own complications. Pure equality, by definition, would seem to mean no recognition of or adjustment to the competitive parameters based on gender, and to simply compete in an open forum. It’s rare in sports, but it does happen. Motorsports, horse racing, dog sled racing, a few others. In surfing, however, it wouldn’t seem this is actually the intended use of the word. Equality in surfing being more about the same number of events for both genders, the same number of competitors, the same prize money, etc. “Equal, but separate” is the phrase that is used. But before we go further, can we just cut the “let’s see the girls surf with the guys” argument? It’s a non-starter as nobody really wants that, right? That said, however, it should also be recognized that men do surf “differently” than women and neither side should be abusing this point of difference. Was Carolyn’s barrel at Teahupoʻo sick? Absolutely, but the elephant in the room that no one will openly acknowledge being that it was a remarkable wave mostly because it was a woman riding it. If we can’t all agree to that basic truth, then this conversation will go nowhere. We can’t play it both ways. Yes, embrace everything Caroline’s wave was, but it must remain in context as well. Men’s surfing and women’s surfing are different things on many levels and they don’t need a comparison to each other to coexist.

Inclusion: Again, definition. If we are thinking openly, inclusion must work both ways in regard to gender. Unfortunately, as we perhaps just saw at Mavericks, it can actually work against the intended desire. There is very strong evidence that would point to the possibility that Mav’s got clipped because equal gender inclusion was mandated. The WSL simply couldn’t run a full, dual-gender event within the permit constraints. Take that concept to its extreme and every single sporting event, including all surfing events at every level, would then require an equal amount of entrants for both genders, regardless of competitor interest. You can’t just kinda do it, it’s either all or nothing right? Or, perhaps, there is a common-sense solution which takes into consideration things like actual interest, qualification process, ability, etc.? Push too hard on this and it’s very likely there will simply be fewer events for either gender in the future. Kind of a “careful what you wish for” deal this one. Yes, it’s a noble fight, but is it realistic?

Opportunity: Probably the easiest to understand but hardest to swallow. First, there are two very important points to consider on this: Is a particular event one of a pure competitive nature run by a scholastic entity, a governing body, or another non-profit type of organization? Or, is it run by a for-profit entertainment business, such as the UFC, NFL, or even our own little WSL? Let’s break those both down real quick. As is often the case in amateur sports, events receive funding from a source of which is either publicly derived or is receiving some type of tax break and/or receives venue approval through a government agency (See Mavericks). In all of those instances, and others like them, equal gender opportunity to compete would seem like the right thing to do and sports, in general, are well down that road. Conversely, a for-profit business, which is simply using a sport to create entertainment value, which in turn generates various forms of revenue ultimately based on viewership, would seem free to decide what they want to present to viewers as that entertainment, and based solely on what makes them the most money. We have heard, in very strong terms, that somehow a for-profit business “owes” equal opportunity to this group or that. Trust us on this one, if they could make more money on women’s surfing, or any other type of surfing, don’t you think they would be doing that? Eyeballs are eyeballs and they know how to count them. If any activity designed to generate those eyeballs doesn’t do that, it’s gonna get clipped, as it should. It’s a fucking business. Where’s Samsung? Why did Target drop Honolua Bay, etc.? The return simply wasn’t there folks. Nothing to do with gender. It’s simply business and they don’t owe anyone squat.

However, we will leave you with this.

Many companies have made untold billions off of the exploitation of women’s surf culture yet they have not reinvested back into the sport nearly what most might think as appropriate. Why? Well, for one, they probably don’t think women’s surfing is best represented within a competitive presentation. Kinda makes sense if you really think about it. How many women surf but also actually have the goal of becoming a competitive surfer compared to how many women buy a bikini because they simply like the culture it represents? If there really is a missing link in creating equality in women’s surfing, don’t the brands like Roxy, Billabong, Volcom, O’Neill, Rip Curl, and all the others, have the biggest role to play in making that change? Yes, some do a little to support women’s competitive surfing but it wouldn’t seem proportional to the earn. Shouldn’t the opportunity conversation start on their doorstep?

In summary, yes, lets work towards inclusion where it makes sense, promote events of which support and highlight all participants, but we do need to remember, no one owes anyone anything.

What Youth

Editor’s note: At What Youth we support 100% equal opportunity for all.

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