This self-governance based philosophy ended its over 40-year history of successful proliferation on Thursday. Or did it?
It may be funny to look at skateboarding as a political philosophy since there is no such thing as a skateboarder party (no, I don’t mean that kind of party) and I don’t believe that a skater has ever been elected to Federal office, but skateboarding is in fact tied to a form of governance that is as unique to it as each skater’s style. This system and its success in growing the sport, embracing minority sub-cultures, and making an impact has many lessons for the greater whole of society.
Unfortunately, however, the emergence of this system may be substantially stifled by the sport’s inclusion in the 2020 Olympics. The sport is now technically under the purview of a roller sports organization called Federation Internationale Roller Sports (FIRS) in partnership with the International Skateboarding Federation (ISF), an organization with ties to the Woodward Camps, which offer action sports and gymnastics programs (an ironic combination given this situation). ISF states that they seek to “maintain the integrity and authenticity of skateboarding as a sport, a passion, and a lifestyle” and names a list of top pro skaters and event organizers on their site as being part of the organization’s committees. However, many skaters have realized the danger of this and have signed a petition against the move, which didn’t stop international imperialist forces from taking hold of the sport. The steps for skaters to take after this move are a topic for a completely different article.
Now, let’s look at the organizational structure of skateboarding. Skateboarding is not, never has been, and I hope never will be, controlled by a single entity. The sport’s popularization and the roots of its current form originated with a group of surfers from a part of Santa Monica, CA called “Dogtown.” Skateboarding did exist before but mostly as a kid’s toy and also with flat ground competitions that look far different from today’s ramp and street obstacle oriented skateboarding. The Dogtown group wanted to utilize skateboarding as a means of replicating their surfing experience and was able to parlay their style into existing competitions from the “old” style of skateboarding. These were not the most organized people in the world to say the least. They were renegades infiltrating a system, albeit a weak one. Eventually, many different styles of skateboarding emerged, from vert to street to park. Skateboarding’s proliferation was led by independently produced videos that featured skaters performing their unique styles, often in teams led by their sponsor companies, which were generally run by skaters. To be fair, competitions also continued to play a role, but were far more casual than typical sports.
Today, non-endemic companies like Nike are in the skateboarding business but haven’t yet changed the culture significantly. Competitions like the X Games and Street League came about but never have overtaken the sport. Some skaters do not agree with them to this day. The skate culture has never been truly centralized in any manner whatsoever. No organizations have come out and claimed to represent all skaters.
Skateboarding is run in what I can best describe as a many-to-many loose bond structure. This is a system wherein one identifies under a single label with a common bond and general conceptualization, but with distinctives for each smaller group (generally loosely organized). To use a more accepted typology, skateboarding is effectively based upon spontaneous order, which is defined as “the spontaneous emergence of order out of seeming chaos” and results in people ordering their activities in such a manner that produces a positive result without being told to follow a specific protocol. This classification is made all the more cogent here by the use of roller skating rinks (just the rink and how people know how to skate without bumping into each other sans a regulator, not the sport’s organizational structure) as an example of spontaneous order.
In current state of skateboarding, save for the lowest levels (closest to the participant), there is no formal hierarchy, and when a leadership structure is put into place it is entered into at the discretion of the participant, without a single defined pathway that is the only viable one for a skater to utilize to participate and/or gain exposure (aka monopoly), with much creative freedom left in tact. Again, this is often skater-to-skater, not skater-to-“dictator.” This is in stark contrast to most other sports, and the sports that have enjoyed such freedom have not generally gained the level of popularity in short order like skateboarding has. Other sports are in a many-to-one or many-to-few-to-one system, a hierarchy that is formally imposed, which is quite frankly like most of society traditionally. This is changing, however. Outside of skate, spontaneous order is becoming more popular throughout society, particularly with the rise of social media and the Internet in general, which has yielded much benefit to society through innovation and opportunity.
However, generally when non-centralized systems without burdensome regulation have been proposed, particularly in politics, they have been associated with the abuses of “bad” capitalists, or worse, racism, as in the critics’ view of the Republican Party. Skateboarding is right in the face of these criticisms. The history of skateboarding has proven that skate’s unique bonds are strong, reliable, and beneficial to participants and the community. It really is voluntary cooperation for the social good at its best. University of Southern California professor Neftalie Williams told The Atlantic that “..they believe in these norms and this activity. Sure you play basketball, sure you’re playing soccer, but there’s nothing in the DNA that says that you’re supposed to go out and build community. That’s why skateboarding is different.” The system in place (or lack thereof) has resulted in few major scandals, massive expansion, entrepreneurship, and creative diversity.
Further, the sport has been an open tent for young people who feel rejected by other sports, minorities, and even those in countries where Western sports like football are often kept away by tyrannical governments for fear of undue influence. It is one of the few sports where a story like that of Andrew Schrock, founder of Revive Skateboards, is possible. A self-proclaimed “stubborn skater,” he is now one of the most popular skateboarders on YouTube and leads a team of multiple skateboarders. He doesn’t have to report to or rely on the International Skateboarding Federation, Street League, or the X Games for large amounts of exposure, he just relies on his friends making cool stuff. This isn’t some kind of minor league or semi-pro-type anomaly; this is the norm for many popular skaters. In another example, the extremely popular Metro Skateboarding online platforms were built from a single shop in the Bay Area. You can’t really find this kind of opportunity in basketball, soccer, or gymnastics. All of those sports are path dependent on a league, education system, or other power structure.
What happened in skateboarding is emblematic of what happens in politics far too often. People get upset about some problem, get convinced of an invented problem, or somehow get enticed into wanting something “better,” lose sight of just how precious their freedoms are and what they have afforded them, and lock themselves into a system that only serves the system itself in return for empty promises and temporary relief. Then, they give themselves the problems of corrupting power and a loss of agency. Their lives wind up entangled in a web of bureaucracy and corruption with no way out. Representation through elections or through some organization that claims to be representative is offered but sometimes fails in practice to show the will of the people, particularly underrepresented minorities. Power corrupts, no matter whether that power is vested in a government or a sports organization, so it is best to not concentrate such power in such a small group of people. That is why skateboarding has succeeded. Little do the people realize that the communities they have managed to form on their own without the help of bureaucrats are much stronger than any central planner could ever devise. With a bit of adaptation, an embrace of a moral code, and the continuation of the spirit of innovation that led them, the people can often find their own solutions. This is why bureaucrats will turn to such systems to remedy the problems their structure cannot solve. And in comes the Olympics looking to skate. Tony Hawk stated that the Olympics need skateboarding more than skateboarding needs the Olympics, and I agree. He has chosen to be within the ISF to influence its direction as part of the “Icons Advisory Committee,” which includes other well-known skateboarders, however the level of power this group has is unclear. He does, however, assert that ISF is “doing an excellent job of including representatives….to make sure that we are preserving our authenticity.”
This is not to say that no leadership is needed and all regulation is bad. Actually, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the Olympics will irreparably damage skateboarding. Those would be incorrect absolutes, wrong on their face. And yes, I realize that skateboarding is not some kind of utopia nor is it entirely generalizable to the rest of society. but it stands as an example to look to, and this beautiful experiment must continue to stand for society to truly realize its potential benefits. Turning it into “everything else,” constraining it by hierarchy, redefining its public character by pushing out false narratives in the media, and making skaters believe that making their art and entire life subject to bureaucracy, or worse, the Soviet-style sports “academies” in certain foreign countries, is necessary for them to be legitimate professional skateboarders, would be a travesty. The people must prevail over bureaucracy and technocracy, yes, even that which looks like it’s representative. Dictators have come to power by election. The skaters must keep these overlords in check, which means directly influencing the Olympics process but also staving off the degenerative results by continuing to do what skaters do, almost as if this all never happened, and doing so with more outreach, creativity, fervency, and skill. And so must any society looking to prevent against tyranny. Doing the right thing in your situation to affirm the integrity and values of an independent society is as important as electing the right representation, if not more so.
So what do we have right now? To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin: skateboarding, if we can keep it.
Greyson Peltier is the founder of RepublicanSocialJustice.org.
Photo credit: By Amiller99 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21234055