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A lot of people worry about the soul of skateboarding. Whether they’re wringing their hands over corporate shoes, energy drink sponsorships, or just “these damn kids today…”, they seem like they do more fretting than skating. And though there’s a certain nobility in caring about the future of the thing we love the most, actually riding a skateboard is still the most important aspect of skateboarding.
So everyone needs to step back and take a deep breath, because while, yes, there are things that trouble some of us, there are elements in the very DNA of skateboarding that will always serve as a check against complete commodification.
Here are eight truths about skateboarding that will ensure it never turns into baseball (or any other sport).
IMAGE VIA WORLD INDUSTRIES
1. The Skateboard Wasn’t Invented to Make Money
No one is really sure when the first skateboard was invented or who did it (sorry, Won Ton Chin), but one thing is certain: It wasn’t created to make money. It developed organically by individuals in search of primal stoke. Since skateboarding wasn’t tied to commerce, it was far from corporate interests aiming to sell it to the masses early on by creating handbooks and leagues. Quite literally, skateboarding has never had an official rulebook or baseline “image,” and, thanks to its grassroots origins, it never will.
2. Skateboarding Has Always Been About Redefining Your Environment
The ethos of creation through deconstruction has been a part of skating from the moment a set of roller skates got it on with a two-by-four and gave birth to the first shred stick. To make a board, you had to saw a pair of roller skates in half and nail the pieces to a piece of scrap wood. In short, you had to grab what was lying around, take it apart, and make it something brand new. In that action you can find the soul of skateboarding: creative adaptation.
Because of this, skating will always be mutating. Tricks, terrain, styles—none of these will ever be static. Compare this to a sport like basketball: Styles of play change, superstars innovate, but, at the end of the day, it is always about putting the ball through the hoop. In skateboarding, even if your only goal is to win every contest and be “the best,” you can’t get there by chasing a set of benchmarks like “most points scored” or “most yards rushed.” You can’t “win” at skateboarding just by doing what the last guy did a little better, even in Street League or on the Dew Tour. This means the mindset of even the most goal-oriented skateboarder will always be vastly different than that of the gridiron hero or soccer virtuoso.
3. The Skateboard Isn’t Merely a Form of Transportation
In the most basic sense, a skateboard is a vehicle, but it is a vehicle that did not evolve as a means of transportation. Even under ideal conditions, pushing around on a skateboard punishes your knees and requires levels of concentration way beyond other forms of transportation. Thanks to its limitations as a vehicle, anyone who steps on a skateboard for the first time quickly realizes that skateboarding is as much about being somewhere as it is about getting somewhere. If they don’t get tuned into this, they are inevitably going to ditch their board for a bike or a car or the city bus pretty quickly.
All the campus cruisers, and others who use their boards exclusively as transportation will always be mere tourists, consumers subsidizing the scene with their one-time purchases. They will either get hooked into expressive or aggressive forms of skating and become one of the chosen few, or they will fade out of the scene fairly quickly thanks to skating’s limitations. Either way, the core will remain unchanged because the skateboard is a less-than-ideal way to get around.
4. The Basics Are Ridiculously Hard to Learn
Few, if any, activities can compare with skateboarding when it comes to the barriers to entry. Pick up a basketball at age 7 or 8 and within a few seconds you’ll be dribbling. A few minutes later you will probably have made a basket. Pick up a skateboard, on the other hand, and you can expect at least a couple of days’ worth of practice before you can to stay upright and steer. As for the ollie, the basic building block of almost all of modern skateboarding, it takes hours upon hours of repetition over weeks and weeks to even pop one high enough to make it up a curb.
5. The Basics Are Also Hazardous
The risk factor for the beginner is higher in skateboarding as well. You’re unlikely to get a concussion if you throw up an airball on your first jump shot, but if you blow it on your first tail drop, serious injury is a possibility, minor injury a guarantee. The point here is not that skaters are tougher or greater athletes than players in conventional sports. It’s that mastering the bare basics of skating takes so much athletic grunt work it guarantees that only the most dedicated folks, those with the most love, will stick with it long enough to pop their first ollie, much less their first kickflip. This front-end hardship is skating’s greatest filtering mechanism. It’s why skateboarding is not just a hobby for so many, but a passion that colors their whole life. It’s why the hardcore skater will always be the culture’s mainstay, and the “casual skater” is mostly nonexistent.
6. All You need Is a Board and Yourself
With skateboarding, you don’t need a team or even an opponent to participate. You can pick up your board, go out, and ride it to the fullest with no one but your damn self. Skateboarding is still skateboarding, whether you are in a crowd of hundreds at the skatepark or a parking lot alone at 1 in the morning. Similarly, no matter how crowded the spot you are skating is or how many bros are in your crew, when you drop in and take a run, or charge at a set of stairs, you are doing it alone. No teams, no opponents. And no referees are required to validate what you are doing.
Compare this to other sports, where you have to, at the very least, have an opponent to play, and playing without a regulation team is just fooling around. In skateboarding, there’s no minimum squad size, no mandatory positions to be filled before you can have a session. If you are on a board and riding it, you are are skateboarding, no matter where you are or who you’re with. This is one of the reasons why skateboarding attracts outcasts and individualists. For those who don’t want to tow the social lines and take orders from coaches and team captains, skateboarding is the only choice.
7. Skateboarders Form Communities, Not “Teams” and “Leagues”
The jockocracy always advocates the “community-building” aspects of team sports, but when you get down to it, team competition doesn’t build communities—it fractures them. The foundation of team play is playing with the same group of people over and over again in order to defeat other teams. Teams aren’t communities; they’re insular and self interested. They’re more like rival gangs.
In skateboarding, skaters from other crews or towns are not your opposition—they’re your inspiration. On top of that, skate “crews” are always mixed, not just in skill level, but often in age, not to mention geographic origins, race, and economic background. Pro skaters can roll with journeymen and novices; elite-level guys with different sponsors won’t hesitate to skate and even make video edits with riders from other companies.
Encouraging and aiding other skaters is not simply good manners. It’s what’s required to progress. Compare this with team endeavors, where helping the other team means hurting your own and “practicing” with players of a lesser level can actually dull your skill set. You’ll never have to have to choose between your best friend and the best skater when picking “teams” for a pick-up game of skateboarding, and you are not restricted to playing with people your own age out of some sense of competitive fairness, either. There’s no competition, and someone half your age might be twice as good as you anyway.
With no leagues and team titles to worry about, skaters can concentrate on working together at the grassroots level and building skate spots, ramps, and lifelong friendships. In other words, despite skating’s solitary nature and its lack of formal organization, it creates tight communities.
8. There Has Never Been, Nor Will There Ever Be, a Best Skater
Tony Hawk has been called the Michael Jordan of skateboarding, but even at the height of his skills, he couldn’t keep up with someone like Eric Koston or Mark Gonzales on the street. Nyjah Huston is one of the best guys out there right now, but there are 12-year-olds who could smoke him on a vert ramp. Skateboarding is not one-dimensional. It’s more like a dozen or so styles that fall under one umbrella, with boundaries forever overlapping.
Even if you just look at one style of skating, an actual scoring system is pretty much impossible: Is a 50-50 down a 20-stair handrail “better” than a kickflip 50-50 down a seven set? Was Hosoi better than Hawk? Was Mullen more important than Gonz? In the context of skating, these are all silly questions.
The mainstream needs clearly defined winners and losers to become invested in a sport. Competitive structures give people who never play a sport a story they can follow, a story so simple it can usually be told by statistics in the morning paper. Skateboarding will never really be able to give them any of that. Therefore, while a lot of noteworthy people have come out of skateboarding, it will never have a “Greatest of All Time.” Skateboarding will always be an activity you have to participate in to appreciate. And once you do that, your outlook on it changes forever.