Selling out. Cashing in. Turning your back on your once held beliefs in exchange for money or better life options. As skateboarders, selling out is a concept we’re all familiar with, but it’s one that is as vague as it is intriguingly pervasive.
Ed Templeton, Jeff Grosso, and Tony Hawk all come from generations where selling out was an ongoing dialogue in the skateboarding community. Along with their peers, they experienced the ups and downs of skateboarding’s popularity and saw the effects of what kind of people entered the picture when there was money to be made, and who left when that door closed. Witnessing the rise and fall of the skateboarding industry and remaining for its resurgence bolstered loyalty amongst skateboarders and, coupled with mainstream society’s general distaste and misunderstanding of skateboarding, created a wariness to outside influence.
Hawk is obviously no stranger to corporate sponsorships. In the late ’90s and early aughts, there was Got Milk?, Apple, his own video game franchise, and even Club Med. Early on, however, Hawk got burned repeatedly due to his young age and lack of business experience and morals, which is why he did so much better in the ’90s in terms of handling himself professionally with corporate suitors.
“I think what happened was the whole attitude of selling out, or almost the concept of selling out came from the ’90s with bands,” Hawk told me. “Nirvana was this underground, cool punk band and then suddenly they’re huge, so they sold out. Yeah, the arenas are selling out, but the music is the same. I think that’s when that attitude really came into play.” Yes, Hawk made his fair share, and maybe a little more, but there was a distinct trickle down that afforded a lot of opportunities to a lot of other people outside his inner circle. He’s put a lot of his money back into skateboarding.
Jeff Grosso argues that the concept of selling out in skateboarding goes back as far as the Dogtown days, long before Hawk’s timeline. This would make sense given that that group is largely responsible for creating the primordial identity of modern skateboarding. In Grosso’s speculating words, “I’m sure people cried wolf in the ’70s. Jay Adams was still alive and it’s pretty well documented that he wasn’t stoked on what was happening to him and all his friends. They all wanted to ride for Dogtown, yadda yadda yadda… and then they all blew apart and went other places. But that’s a little before my time.”
Grosso remembers back to the first time he thinks he’d ever heard someone yell “Sellout!” in skateboarding. It was around 1987 when skateboarding experienced a boom in popularity with arena contests and “The Big 5” of Powell, Santa Cruz, Vision, Thrasher, and Transworld pretty much running the industry. In ’87, CCS was just two years old and expanding, and large companies like Gatorade were starting to target skaters in their advertisements.
“When the money came rolling back in and they started having arena contests, people were team jumping,” Grosso explains. “A lot of people were skating for Vision Streetwear, for instance. And Vision Streetwear was um… it was pretty corny to use a more PC term [laughs]. And people were getting paid to ride for Vision Streetwear and other folks thought that that was lame. Vision was this huge thing and a lot of people felt that it was bad for skateboarding and whatever. But the same people that screamed about stuff like that were also at Vision sponsored events, so where do you draw the line of refusal?”
Where Hawk has toed the line regarding corporate sponsorships, and Grosso has never been considered a sell-out, Templeton is still saying no to companies that do not align with his morals. Templeton was recently offered an opportunity to sell out his vegan beliefs in a big way and initially signed on happily. He was offered a photography gig with Gucci and as he puts it, “The money was insanity.”
“I was like, “Dude, That’s so much money, I’ll do it.” Then I took a pause and within one hour of looking on the Internet and realizing that Gucci uses all this crazy animal stuff and do this snakeskin boot where you have to skin the snake alive… all this crazy shit and I was just like, “What am I doing?” I just called the lady back and said I was not doing it. It caused kind of an uproar because first, you say yes, then you say no, so it’s fucked up, but I had to pull out.
In my head I just imagined the first Internet comment or something, ‘Oh, Ed the vegan is working for some lame company that uses animals in a fucked way.’” Ed adds, “The line for me was there because it was purely for money and I didn’t really care or need to do that to live.”
For Templeton, his stance against certain companies largely comes from a moral objection and a choice to abstain, as best as possible, from supporting businesses and practices that he doesn’t agree with on an ethical level.
But also, Templeton says, “I’ve had really good luck personally on this. All the companies I’ve ridden for have for the most part been skater-owned and operated. Obviously, RVCA got bought at some point by Billabong or something, so there’s big corporate money there, but Emerica and Toy Machine have always been skater owned and operated, which in some ways gives me more bragging rights or something. But I’m quick to say that it’s by chance.”
What do morals or ethics have to do with riding a toy around with your friends? Why do we insist on applying these ideological guidelines on an inanimate object, or on our most loved pastime? Hawk separated skateboarding from business and set a moral code for how he would handle his business endeavors.
“It’s weird. I think in the ’80s the general consensus was, ‘Holy crap, other people want to give me money?’ That was crazy! So for us, it was all just new and wondrous, even though it was super strange and some of the many products were questionable… It was like the hardest lesson to learn. Then, I vowed that if I ever got to do anything like that again that uses my name or likeness that I would have final approval of it,” Hawk said.
At the time in the late ‘90s, in terms of corporate advertisers dealing with skateboarding, Hawk explains that the attitude towards skateboarders was primarily that we should feel lucky to even have the possibility of working with these companies and ad agencies. Hawk said, “It was also a little bit of arrogance in that they knew what the appeal of skateboarding was, so they would present it like that in their outsider’s eyes. It was like, ‘Radical! Gnarly! Thrash! Extreme!’ you know? And I knew they had no reverence for skating and authentic skateboarding, and I wasn’t playing into it.”
Hawk is right, the early skateboarding ads for outside companies did seem horribly inauthentic, but what is authentic skateboarding? Authentic or true skateboarding is ostensibly the antithesis of selling out, but that all gets into the even murkier grey existential bullshit of “What even is ‘truth,’ man?”
In an episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast, the host David McRaney spoke with Andrew Potter, author of several books, including one titled The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves. The book explores our human need to seek out the “Real” or the “Authentic,” and claims that we do so out of a primal competition to assert and retain status within our social hierarchy.
As stated in the podcast: “A lot of what we think are genuine values are a disguised form of status seeking. And the reason why we tend to react when corporations get involved when they tend to get sold is because when things are available on the mass market, it undermines the sort of status check of a lot of objects or experiences, or products, and so on. And so, a lot of what we think of as of values that are being bought or sold is a loss of status.”
So say you only buy skater-owned, you may have more status than someone who buys swooshes or stripes. People get angry when somebody “sells out” because it undermines their value in what we perceive as “authentic” skateboarding. If money can alter what is or isn’t viewed as the real deal, then your entire understanding of what is “real skateboarding” is essentially up for sale.
“Status is a weird word, but I agree that there is obviously a cycle there,” Templeton says. “There is something to that. The trendsetters do kind of find weird stuff then bring it to the mainstream, but it seems like it’s mostly about fashion and stuff like that.” Identity is the word that would properly fit the situation for skateboarders, rather than status.
Skateboarding becomes a deep part of who you are if you really do it right. Once a skateboarder, always a skateboarder. So because skateboarding is part of our identity, and because we all contribute to the culture of skateboarding just by being skateboarders who shop at skate shops and use skateboard products and talk about skateboarding, we are invested and feel part ownership in it. And if you’ve grown up believing certain inalienable truths, in an “us vs. them,” “independent vs. corporate” mindset, a younger generation undermining that can be very upsetting. And the more accessible skateboarding becomes, the less special it can seem sometimes. So what?
“I think the goal for kids now is to sell out,” Templeton explains. “That’s the goal. I don’t think the concept is even there. I think people my age—I’m 44—who grew up in that era of punk and morals of some type, we understand that concept and it’s hard for us to cross that line, but ever since 2000 or something, that’s the goal. The goal is to get a giant endorsement from some company and make tons of money, you know? Get rich or die trying kind of thing.”
Invariably any discussion of selling out will eventually bring up Nike, as this piece has several times, and mainly at this point, it’s because of what Nike represents more so than what Nike SB actually does. Nike represents corporate, mainstream, athletic America—three tiers of everything skateboarding as a counterculture was supposedly always against.
“The thing is, Nike won,” Templeton says. “There are Nike and Vans as far as big money goes in skateboarding shoes, and everyone else lost. Everyone else is hanging by a thread, if you’re not one of the big companies like New Balance or adidas that subsidizes skateboarding through a global running shoe or basketball shoe business. Skateboarding as a whole never stood up to that, and the concept is that in the long-term, Nike doesn’t care about skateboarding. It’s just a bottom line, whereas the skater-owned companies do care about skateboarding. There’s probably more of a chance Emerica’s going to go out of business than Nike will.”
Nike won? Kind of. But nobody wins skateboarding. You can win a contest or a giveaway, but skateboarding is still here for everyone and it’s more accessible than it’s ever been, for good or bad. Kyle Beachy once wrote, “The only real threat to the skateboarding community is not destruction, but growth,” Skateboarding is no longer the counterculture it was in the past. We’ve lost a lot of that outcast mentality because we’ve been welcomed into the fold of mainstream culture. We did it incrementally, with a lot of kicking and screaming along the way, but we didn’t complain about the new skateparks, or when it got a little easier to chat up ladies and fellas at the bar. And while skateboarding grows and grows, we can only speculate at the cost. The worry with corporate-owned skate companies is that they’ll start dictating what goes and what’s allowed in skateboarding.
However, Hawk is more optimistic about the future of our culture, “People have been asking that all through the last 10-15 years,” Hawk says. “’Is skateboarding losing its core?’ Look around. Thrasher is one of the biggest skate publications. They’re not watering down anything. The hardcore skater is still out there skating the forbidden… whatever, handrails, and street spots, and still stirring up trouble. Well, not trouble, but you know, stirring the pot. They’re still mixing it up out there. It’s not like everyone’s been honed into some sanitized version of skating. That version exists for sure. Street League is the example. If that’s not the most sort of coordinated — I don’t want to say watered down — but fixed system… You’ve taken skateboarding and made it a numbers game. And I’m not saying that’s wrong. I’m just saying that element already exists in skating.”
“I truly believe that the Olympics will be less structured than that,” Hawk continues. “Someone can get caught up in the dollar signs and lose sight of having reverence. Sometimes you’ll see someone pop in a commercial that the general skate population is like ‘That is so cheesy.’ That just doesn’t represent skating well, and they’re going to get heat for it forever [laughs]. So in that respect—and sometimes it’s just someone being naive—that responsibility is on that person. When they know they’re doing some big advertising campaign, you’ve got to — maybe even just for your own peace of mind — want to represent skating well, because that stuff resonates.”