Skateboarders Look for a Sporting Chance : Serious Orange County competitors enjoy the challenges, but not the restrictive city ordinances, lack of rinks and negative public perceptions.
If Huntington Beach High School had finished the skateboard rink it had scheduled for use by the beginning of the school year, Ocean View High senior Jeff Harmon would have entreated his mom to let him switch schools.
He was willing to ditch three years of classmates, teachers and his alma mater for a patch of concrete. Even exchanging the short ride to Ocean View High on his skateboard for a car transport a few miles away seemed worth the hassle. To Jeff, Huntington Beach High’s decision to build a rink was evidence that it finally understood his passion. Maybe they’d someday even provide skateboarding the kind of support other high school sports get.
“I’ve played every sport known to man,” says Jeff, 17, who’s been skateboarding for about five years and finds it the most exciting of activities he’s tried. The inherent spontaneity of executing skills, where no object--not fire hydrant, stair rail or brick wall--poses a barrier but serves as another challenge in the circuit of the urban landscape, that’s what thrills.
It takes a certain amount of aggressiveness to maneuver a trick (even as simple as popping the board up in the air and keeping it attached to your feet as if by magic) when the terrain is rock hard.
Jeff’s demeanor is anything but aggressive during conversation. “This is what I enjoy best,” he says. “People see this as something a bunch of little punks do. But this is a tough sport. This is more than just my hobby.”
Of the close to 8 million skateboarders nationwide, 42% are 12 to 17, according to Transworld Skateboarding Magazine in Oceanside. Just scanning the pages of this publication and others on the market, including Thrasher (San Francisco), Monster magazine (Germany), Slam (Australia) and Rad (England), reflects an audience consisting mostly of young males united by their zeal for skateboarding. This is not a scene defined, as many are, by attitudes, intellectual opinions or music. There is no icon, no school of thought or era to emulate.
Camaraderie arises from a shared sense that their interest in skateboarding is still regarded as the stuff of outcasts. It is banned in many public areas and only begrudgingly acknowledged as a competitive sport--even though it’s the sixth largest participant sport in the United States. Internationally, it claims millions of devotees from here to Moscow.
While there are musical acts that skate and others that claim a following primarily of skateboarders, there is no one music that skateboarders en masse identify with. Punk rock, rap, hip-hop and alternative music artists are all profiled in the skate mags.
Clothes identify them somewhat. Skateboarders drove extra large sizes to fashionable status--not in the name of fashion but practicality. Ollying (jumping) over a post, riding up the wall of a swimming pool or simply gliding over a flat surface is enough of a stretch without being constrained in tight-fitting jeans that stick to sweaty skin. Lycra bicycle shorts are just not an option among teen-age skateboarders.
Loose-fitting clothes, including odd, thrift-shop finds, will likely not be replaced any time soon, but an emerging sartorial trend disturbs dedicated riders such as Jeff.
“It’s very judgmental now. It’s all about a Big Scene. It basically sucks, because all these little kids care about is brand names,” Jeff says, pointing to teens a couple of years his junior. “It’s a big fashion show now. They just sit here and watch, but they don’t really skate.”
These wanna-bes talk plenty about being sponsored by a skateboard company, a coup for any young rider because of the attention and free merchandise that comes with it. The proliferation of companies inundating the market in recent years has resulted in a frenzy among owners (who tend to be skaters in their mid-20s to early 30s) and their customers to pledge allegiance to a label. With so many companies based in Southern California, the concentration of sponsored riders is high.
Jeff landed a sponsorship with Grind Inc. in Huntington Beach six months ago.
But, he says, “there are all these companies sponsoring every little kid. Too many of them aren’t even good enough and don’t deserve it.”
While skateboarders have to face occasional discrimination from within, more frequently they have to contend with external forces that have lumped them all as juvenile delinquents who vandalize, get stoned and tag.
There are vandals, stoners and taggers who skateboard, notes Jeff, just as there are those who play baseball or football.
The major issue lies with the complaints by city officials and business owners angered over street curbs, bus benches and parking stops chipped and ground down by the metal trucks that hold the wheels. Signs banning skateboards are posted at mini-malls, schools, parks, beach boardwalks and other places.
And, if that’s not enough, riding a skateboard on streets and in public areas in many cities is a violation punishable by some pretty hefty fines. While arrests have been made for skateboarding on sidewalks and school grounds in recent years, some cities have reduced the penalties.
Three years ago, two 15-year-olds were handcuffed and photographed by sheriff’s deputies for cruising alongside a Laguna Niguel road. Uproar over the arrests prompted a change in how violations are handled. Instead of being booked, skaters are issued citations, which can carry a $25 fine for a first offense and $50 for a subsequent violation.
In San Clemente, skateboarding on the pier can land you a $162 ticket. Other cities have similar laws on the books.
Jeff recently got a ticket for riding across the campus of a local elementary school. Although he says he apologized to the officer and tried to be cooperative, he ended up with a citation. Jeff says he was told he was getting a ticket to make an example of him to his friends and because he was not carrying identification.
It’s all enough to push a teen into defense mode. “Skateboarding is not a crime” has become the rallying cry from enthusiasts and their supporters, a pithy statement for bumper stickers and T-shirts, a creed to hold on to in times of alienation from a world that doesn’t get it. Aren’t there enough unfriendly forces out there weighing on a high-schooler without the added misconceptions about something that is basically not illegal?
Some, like Jeff, take it in stride. Others react in ways that emphasize their perceived outlaw image.
“I’m not going to argue that property doesn’t get damaged,” Jeff says. “It does. But I will argue that cities should build as many skateboard parks as they do places for baseball and basketball.
“Skateboarding is about being an individual. I don’t want to be classified as ‘a skateboarder’ or stereotyped. I’m just Jeff, and I skateboard.”
Lucky for him, Jeff lives across the street from the county’s only present public skateboard area, on the edge of Murdy Park in Huntington Beach. Less than half the size of the sandy jungle gym area nearby, it was the result of much lobbying by skateboarders and supporters. It’s too tight an area to achieve the kind of acrobatic feats possible on a skateboard, but despite its limitations, it’s become a must-stop among local and visiting riders.
The attraction is part novelty. Public skateboard areas in this country are about as common as becoming president of the United States.
The city is in the midst of constructing a second rink--this one on the campus of Huntington Beach High. Twice as big as the Murdy site--or, the size of a basketball court, as one city official described it--and near the entrance to the football stadium, it will be ready for riding in late November. Rumors are flying among some high-schoolers that a class period like the one for the surf team is also under consideration at the school. But for now, according to school officials, the truth lives only in the wheeled fantasies of skateboarding teens such as Jeff.
Skateboarding, after all, is still far from attaining the kind of respectable status surfing has achieved. Unlike wave riding, skateboarding doesn’t get classified as a sport among many sports editors--some of whom deem shuffle board, Ping-Pong and badminton worth coverage.
Frustration takes over Jeff’s expression. “Skateboarding is a sport. It’s physical. We have contests all the time. I think skateboarding is worthy of an Olympic event.”
While Seoul will do without skateboarding in ’96, the wheels are already turning in the sport’s favor on an international scale.
The California Amateur Skateboard League took a nine-member team to Russia last month to participate in contests and skateboard demonstrations held in conjunction with the Goodwill Games.
The teens stayed with other young skateboarders and their families in St. Petersburg. Among the pack was San Clemente High junior Josh Spencer, who has competed in monthly league-organized events from Temecula to Santa Barbara for the past three of his five years as a skateboarder.
The experience for Josh, 16, whose only venture before on foreign land had been to Mexico, was “rad,” to say the least. “It was cool going to a country you couldn’t have gone to a few years ago,” says Josh. “Just experiencing a different culture taught us that kids are kids everywhere.”
Kids in Russia proved more industrious, he admits. Although product is imported and manufactured there, it’s an arduous effort to find anything. So they improvise. They carve, weld and saw their own parts. “It’s what they have to do to skate,” says Josh. “Everything was perfect. It blew my mind. It didn’t even look homemade.”
Josh toured St. Petersburg and Moscow on his board during the two-week visit, “communicating through hand signals and a lot of pointing.”
Skating outside the Hermitage was thrilling, he recalls, but it wasn’t just the monuments or the Winter Palace that will remain etched in his memory.
Russians of every age--even older people, even police--treated his skateboarding crew with an open enthusiasm that “tripped the whole team out.”
“It’s like a trend here in America to hate skateboarders,” he says. “So it’s weird going to a country where the people just got their freedom, and they don’t care about skateboarding. They’re cool about it. They’ve got other things to deal with. We could skate anywhere.
“Then you come back to America and you get arrested for skating a curb. Everything is supposed to be so free here, and I get a $162 ticket for doing a kick flip at the pier at night. The cop acted like it was a sting operation. He tried to take my board.”
Josh envisions an alternative attitude: Every town builds a skate park that is paid for by businesses that have pitched in the money once spent to post all those “No Skateboard” signs.
“There’s a freedom you feel when you’re skateboarding,” he adds.
“Here you’re not free to skate anywhere. Skateboarding shouldn’t be a crime.”