The End of Amateur Surfing

posted by / Blogs, Editorial / May 25, 2011

Products of the post-amateur world: tomorrow’s pros are also today’s. Photo: Billy Watts



Just a few years ago, the former USSF (now Surfing America) wasn’t much different from the former USSR (now Russia): it was a loose, poorly governed grouping of regional satellites and it basically sucked. Toward its end, the United States Surfing Federation was as cool as abstinence. Finals at its US Championship routinely featured no known names and multiple Texans. Few top juniors bothered with the organization at all, most instead fixing their attention on the rival NSSA.

But there was a time when the USSF — and NSSA as well — commanded groms’ obedience better than their own parents or even television did. Kids would actually forgo cash money for the privilege of competing as amateurs, because that was the rule — if you accepted any sponsor coin (even travel support or entry fees), you were a pro and ineligible for the prestigious am circuits or the US national team. Just last month we did a Christian Fletcher interview in which he described covering his Astrodeck logos with packing tape back in the ‘80s to avoid losing am status.

Thank God that’s done and dusted, because Kinect is not cheap. Get money money.


When Matt Archbold was a kid, the word “amateur” meant something: no corpo kickbacks. His son Ford would laugh hard at that. Photo: Ryan Foley


Today the US amateur infrastructure is well run and well supported, but it has none of its old teeth. Kids are swayed by pastures much greener than surf P.E. and a contest T-shirt. They’re eligible as tweens for a dream life, same as their heroes, with travel, money, and endless water time. No grom can be expected to pass that up for plastic trophies and algebra class. Ironically, they’re not that dumb.

So while the pro/am distinction in surfing was always at least a little dodgy, this generation really unplugged its respirator. Now the sport’s main gatekeepers are sponsors who give or withhold a paycheck and a marching order: chase that swell, come to Hawaii, do the Europe leg. But the sponsors aren’t parents (and whether even the parents are parents is often in question); they think in US dollars, and in those terms, a ninth grader “home schooling” from the deck of an Indo charter is perfectly reasonable so long as he’s getting photos with his logo showing. Just don’t ask him to spell “contingency plan.”

Pro surfing no longer asks for ID at the door, it actually kidnaps. I don’t know whether this is a good or a bad thing, and it would depend on whom you’re asking, but either way surfing is now closer to the Hollywood model of co-opting childhoods than to the mainstream sports model of scholastic team participation and a path to college. The kids don’t mind, their jus stokd 2b surfin wit frndz hahha :).

But maybe someone should mind. Get money money. —Stuart Cornuelle


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  • jb

    If you look at the pro surfers who took their studies/intellect seriously and contrast them with those who didn’t you’ll see quite a marked difference in their success post professionalism.
    Do you really think Slater would have been as dominant if he had blown off his schoolwork? The man developed good study habits that he very obviously translated to his approach both in free surfs and the tour.
    What’s going to happen to the majority of aspiring amateurs who will not achieve glorious heights if they shirk their intellect? Last I checked David Eggers was living with his father in the Salton Sea region.
    Then there’s all those …lost burnouts from the 90’s.
    Oahu’s prisons have been a revolving door for many of Hawaii’s best surfers, nearly all of whom were dropouts.
    And would A.I. still be with us if he had shown a similar scholastic discipline as his greatest rival did?
    Cooler heads tend to prevail while hot heads stewing on coals of blissful ignorance are often burned up – or out – when the party ends.

  • jb

    Surfing stands to benefit immensely by smartening up. As it continues to grow its global presence the viewing public will undoubtedly compare the intellectual abilities of surfers to those of other athletes; they willingly put themselves under the microscope.
    Tragically, as “homeschooling” has grown in acceptance and popularity among surfers I have noticed a concurrent rise in the degree of ignorance and social immaturity among more and more young surfers.
    Sponsors forget that when their athletes come off as bungling Spicolis it hurts the brand’s reputation and only reinforces negative popular stereotypes.
    Everyone makes a big deal about Dane reading books, learning to play piano, and expanding his artistic and cultural awareness. This is a sad statement, primarily because there was, once upon a time, a period when surfers like Dane were the rule more than the exception. Surfers used to be far more intellectual and worldly which is odd when you consider how much young pros travel now (albeit in an obvious bubble).
    When pro surfing started looking for rock stars it got what it asked for. It would be nice if it could be about the “music” again.

  • Usa Forro

    For your next assignment, how about a feature on the “home school” phenomenon that taken the surf world by storm? Practically every parent with a grom that has a sticker on their board is homeschooling their kid these days, thinking he’s the next Kelly Slater.

    I work at the local high school and am blown away by how many local groms with minimal talent (i.e. obviously will NEVER make a career out of surfing) don’t attend… because they’re “home schooled.”

  • Mixologist

    This is a plague mostly endemic to the Southern California region.

  • chuck

    it (home schooling’ is not endemic to southern california. you can see it in south jersey, Fla and other states where mommy and daddy think jr’s going tobe the next big thing. it’s sad in the long run

  • Usa Forro

    +1 on what chuck said. It’s all over the place, even areas that might as well be flat most of the year. Kids can’t even make it out of their first round heat when they fly out to NSSA contests. Nuts.

  • stu

    why ANY parent would let their kid homeschool to chase a pro surfing career is beyond me. Like surfing wasn’t dumb enough to begin with…

  • zach

    I totally agree I am a 14 year old kid from Irvine CA and I have a little sponsorship by globe shoes. Obviously, school is the most important priority of any kid hoping to make a career out of surfing. So many kids these days just think that surfing comes first. My advice to anyone is to stay in school and have a crap load of fun surfing!

  • Adam

    Too bad this piece didn’t attract greater response. Probably the strongest entry from this team of non-journalists in a long while. Maybe ever. Maybe direct that logic inward, too. You might write something mind blowing.

  • dgb

    Homeschoolers on average achieve better results than public schooled kids – just a fact. Research it if you don’t believe it. What’s the bet that other guy who writes all the silly shit did poorly at public school?

  • geoff

    @ dgb: that’s because the stat you’ve referred to takes into account all kids who do homeschool, not just surfers. There are definitely effective ways to use homeschool to help your kid excel, but the wealthy coastal parents (across the country) who put their kids in homeschool at age 14 just so the kids can surf more is basically retarded. The vast majority of these kids won’t make it as legit pro surfers and are all doomed to be raised by the surf industry. Ever talk to one of these kids when they’re in their twenties? Doomed.

  • jb

    You fail to include many variables that point to the flaws in the statistics you speak of (which you should have posted, BTW).
    Look into these questions:
    -What is the general demographic of home schooled children? Things like median income and working parents stats.
    -What percentage of home schooled children come from single parent homes?
    -What percentage of home schooled children come from strict religious backgrounds?
    Consider also that if the US gave its public school system the same respect and attention that all the other developed nations do that it would radically alter the current state of affairs plaguing our failing academic system.
    Imagine also if we could finally, once and for all, get the religious zealots to stop wasting massive amounts of time and money forcing schools to have to deal with their ignorance and monkey wrenching.
    If you can afford to give your kid a well rounded and competitive education that doesn’t turn them into a religious whack-o then more power to you. Unfortunately this simply isn’t an option for the majority of American families, especially in these fragile and volatile economic times.

  • donniedarko

    Its also the attitude of the athletes. Andino and Geiselman both bounced of Team USA when they have a life time to ‘make it’ on tour, to focus on the Prime events only to not even make it out of any of the first heats, foremostly Andino. Its a joke, cant support USA amateur surfing, just self centric me-me attitude. That all imoprtant 96th in the world ranking Kolohe is now what. Good on you for supporting your country and the bigger picture. Not impressed

  • knoodelhed

    And when in the kid’s life do they homeschool? Hint. Your average American public middle school is a failed experiment and has been for the past forty years. Limiting anyone’s exposure to it can only be a good thing imo.