The Score

Summer 2020 scrolls along, with an Olympic-sized gap. No festival of rings for anointed contenders to probe and poke and wrest precious metals and network television clout — it vanished in a puff of sanitizer-scented mist, possibly to be reconvened in a post-vaccine era. Its absence most acutely is felt by months-in-the-manufacturing, themed merchandise, turned out into a cold world without a torch-bearing promotional partner to light the way. Shops and distributors, fingers crossed for a THPS-flavored bump in Olympics completes and associated foot traffic, instead were mandated to close doors and dealt product shortages by a global pandemic that seems only to strengthen.

There are bigger reckonings though, and longer-running scorecards to scrutinize. George Floyd’s May 25 killing by police instantly embroiled an already-on-edge country in mourning, seething anger and some amount of soul-searching over how cops treat Black people, how cities and the government and banks and businesses and the law position people of color relative to everybody else, how we all look at and talk to each other. As people took to the streets, it was a lay-up for skateboarders to join in. Before municipal tax districts invested in sanctioned free-skate zones, law enforcement historically had provided the opposing force to distill skateboarding’s anti-authority posture and outlaw attitude, setting in motion generations of nose-thumbing board graphics, questionable fashion choices, a thousand energy drink commercials. The latent property destruction innate to street skating and the subculture’s own brushes with police brutality gave plenty of common cause for turning out in the streets, IG-ready photo and video ops an added bonus. With a recession looming, companies from WKND, Quasi and Bronze to Fuckingawesome and Supreme pledged in total hundreds of thousands of dollars to Black Lives Matter and other causes, including a gobsmacking US$1 million promise from Palace.

Was skateboarding ready to reckon with its own racial scorecard? Street skating’s advent in the mid-1980s provided a broader playing field for skateboarders of all backgrounds — racial, economic and otherwise — to get down without ready ramp access, and by the early 1990s, kids from a range of races featured prominently in the videos and mags. Documents of skateboarding’s golden age, from the freestyle interludes in ‘Mixtape’ to Larry Clark’s lawless teenage trage-fantasy ‘Kids’ to the credits of ‘Trilogy’ projected some kind of mellow melting pot, that beyond the reach of parents, principals, police and various other authority figures, skateboarders had this figured out better than everybody else.

The reality was murkier. Thrasher’s excellent September issue, anchored by a series of lengthy interviews by and of Black skaters from nearly every era, tugged back some of those gauzy drapes to recount racially biased contest judging, weirdness and unease on tour in middle America or walking across the street in the city, an epithet on a note stuck beneath a windshield wiper for a Black dad to find and have to explain to his little boys in a skatepark parking lot. On Instagram, Nak’el Smith aired out his own dealings with racial disparities ranging from the risky to the mundane, like Black kids on the session knowing they’re likely to take the most heat if the policy show up, to gassed-up white pros believing they possessed a hood pass.

Tony Vitello, rising to the moment on behalf of the magazine of record and his NorCal family dynasty, set out the challenge at the end of May: “Now is the time for skateboarding to lead by example, to show the world how it can be done, how it needs to be done. Starting NOW.”

As pro skaters and companies added their voices to deafening calls for society to take a hard look at itself and figure out how to fix things, other voices began speaking up. Women who lived in and around skating’s often insular, always male-driven sphere began to tell of how they’d been taken advantage of, manipulated and abused by famous skaters — in some cases implicating pros who days before were posting messages of inclusion and societal self-assessment. Like the video of George Floyd’s last minutes alive, Ahmaud Arbery’s fatal shooting, the account of Breonna Taylor’s shooting in her home by police and the others before, these women’s stories are tough to read. In some cases, they’ve prompted a response. In others, what happens next remains to be seen. If skateboarders — the pros, the companies that sell stuff off their names, the kids and adults who hold them in esteem — are serious about making things better, for everybody, these things can’t be ignored or forgotten about or buried in the feed.

When police brutality protests ran hot it was easy for skateboarders to feel like they were on the right side of history. Is that true? When the score is tallied will it show skateboarding did better or worse than other sports, pastimes or subcultures as far as including and treating women, people from other cultures, people who are gay or trans or anybody else? What stories will be told when Thrasher or someone else traces the progression, trials and triumphs of Patti McGee, Cara Beth Burnside and Elissa Steamer, up through Alexis Sablone, Marisa Dal Santo, Lizzie Armanto, Samarria Brevard and next-ups like Nelly Morville?

3 Responses to “The Score”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    You’ve put out some great content over the years but this is where I leave you and your woke bullshit. George Floyd died of a drug overdose and race had nothing to do with it, you jerkoff. Lastly, females generally suck at skateboarding. Reality bites.

  2. Joel Says:

    Great timely and insightful post. I think the harder work remains, now that the immediate fury has past.

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