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The tiny town of Carbondale, Colo., would hardly seem a mecca for skateboarders, but during two days in the summer of 2004, professional skaters from all over the country congregated to test the town's skateboard park with its numerous bowls, ramps, jumps, half-pipes and an 18-foot full-pipe.

Most of the skaters were twenty­somethings wearing de rigueur grubby clothing and two-days' worth of facial hair. But a significant number of youngsters—mostly boys—gathered to watch the pros in action. Kids ranged in age from as young as five to mid-teens, and most brought their own skateboards to test the course during breaks in the big boys' exhibition.

Such devotion should be no surprise. As sports heroes go, in 2004 skateboarding phenomenon Tony Hawk ranked in popularity only behind former NBA star Michael Jordan and NFL quarterback Michael Vick among boys ages 12 to 19. Kellogg's Frosted Flakes has featured mascot Tony the Tiger riding a skateboard. Indeed, sales of skateboards and accessories grew by 54 percent from 1998 to 2004—to $8.3 billion dollars. Of the 12.3 million boarders in the U.S., 80 percent fall between the ages of 6 and 17.

The sport requires incredible athleticism and physical coordination, and assuming one wears the proper protective gear—helmet, knee and elbow pads, and wrist guards—it's a pastime most parents could easily encourage.

Unfortunately, along with the athletic side of the phenomenon comes a dark subculture of anarchism, insubordination and even satanic activity. To be sure, not all skateboarders succumb to this seedy side of the sport. But for teens carving out their identity or yearning to belong to a group that accepts them as they are, this underbelly is all too tempting.

Why Is Skateboarding So Popular?
The increasing popularity of skateboarding can be tied to some parents' tendency to overemphasize team sports. Football. Baseball. Basketball. Soccer. Kids who can't make those teams or dislike the leagues' structure are drawn to the individuality of skateboarding. Gregg Bennett, a professor of sports management at the University of Florida, believes others are drawn to the sport because it reviles direct competition and champions creativity and camaraderie.

The trend can also be traced to the changing nature of play, according to Ellen Staurowsky, a professor at Ithaca College and president of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport. Casual play used to involve running around the neighborhood unsupervised. That part of adolescence has been chipped away. Staurowsky says sports such as skateboarding have stepped in to fulfill "children's need to just play and express themselves in ways that are not regulated by a sport governing body or by adult fans who expect them to play like pros instead of children."

But such "play" sometimes comes at a cost beyond scraped knees or twisted ankles. At the Carbondale event, a DJ for a local radio station emceed the festival, blaring heavy metal and rap-core music loaded with obscenities. At one point he shouted into the mic, "Hey, let's have all the ladies strip naked and dance for us!" which received hoots of approval from many men. One had to wonder what the young girl of about 12, fully outfitted in protective gear, thought of this as she stood beside the DJ's booth.

This element of skateboard culture is long on insolence and short on courtesy, as a quick flip through most skateboarding mags, including pioneer Thrasher, will show. "Thrasher magazine [has] portrayed skating as an almost nihilistic activity," wrote Karl Taro Greenfeld in Sports Illustrated. He says the sport be­came marketed "as an outlaw pursuit … a beyond-the-pale activity for rebellious kids." Despite the emergence of ESPN's X Games, which helped to legitimize high-flying vertical (or "vert") boarding as more mainstream, much of the underground street mystique remains. In fact, many of the sport's graphics have origins in Southern California gang graffiti.

Street skating is different from vert or so-called "transitional" skating in bowls and half-pipes (popularized by Tony Hawk and others) in that it is defiantly anti-social, adding to its appeal for some teens. We've all seen images of street skaters flying down stairs, skidding along rails and often crashing with spectacularly painful effect—usually in public places. For this reason, city authorities often have to "skateproof" areas that have become overrun with street skaters.

"There are a whole bunch of consequences to allowing skateboarding where it doesn't belong," Philip Goldsmith, managing director for the city of Philadelphia, told USA Today. "The issue … is skateboarding does damage to public property, and it makes it far more difficult for pedestrians to walk through safely." He estimated that skateboarding has cost Philadelphia tens of thousands of dollars.

Not that many street skaters care. In an interview with the skateboarding magazine Heckler, board legend Tony Alva said, "Defy authority. Don't let people tell you how to run your life. … Your dharma [a religious duty in Eastern philosophy] is your purpose in life. You can't stray from that when you find it. Skateboarding is my dharma, the center of my universe. Go with your heart."

Proudly reinforcing such in-your-face defiance are T-shirts sold by Thrasher magazine that read, "Thrasher: Contributing to the Delinquency of Minors Since 1983."

The Darker Things Get, the More Teens Need a Light
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the skate subculture is how it toys with the occult. At the Carbondale event, which was interrupted by periodic cloudbursts, young boys were eager to help dry out the course with squeegees and towels. Their reward was a T-shirt emblazoned with the event's logo—a satanic symbol.

Board art is a big element of the sport as well, and while some of it is clever and shows great talent, it's not uncommon to find dark, often sinister graphics. Some young skaters, oblivious to the satanic imagery's spiritual significance, remain attracted to its "cool" factor. Boards also boast hyper-sexualized images of nearly naked women. One even featured a fully exposed woman masturbating.

That's where Kevin Palau, son of evangelist Luis Palau, comes in. He's disturbed by the dark side of skater culture. "It all feeds on itself—music, movies, TV," he said. "Kids want to appear older, edgier than they are. They don't want to play the T-rated video games; they want to play the M games." Palau's Livin' It ministry reaches out to young skateboarders (and snowboarders and BMX bikers) by using the culture they're familiar with. His Livin' It DVD includes all of the thrills and spills of secular skate videos, plus a clearly presented salvation message and testimonies by Christian skaters.

In addition, one of skateboarding's biggest names recently emerged from prison with a new lease on life and a spiritual mission. Christian Hosoi had been serving 10 years for possessing 1.5 pounds of crystal meth with intent to distribute. But what crystallized during his incarceration was a relationship with Jesus and a desire to share the gospel with teens. "I can't wait to skate again," Hosoi said from prison. "Kids will see me, and I can represent Christ. I want to acknowledge Him in everything I do."

To reach this subculture, churches can bring in Christian skating demonstration teams to talk with youth. Several support organizations are located online at mannaskateboards.com, gloryskateboards.com, christianskaters.com and boardersforchrist.com.

Young people need all the support they can get. At the skate park in Colorado, a mom had brought her son and a few of his 10- to 12-year-old friends. When I asked what she thought about the underside of skate culture, she dismissed it as a boys-will-be-boys distraction. The anarchy. The sexuality. The raw language. The satanic symbols. She was oblivious. All that seemed to matter was that her son was decked out with the latest protective gear for his body. The thought that his soul could be seriously injured never crossed her mind.

Published January 2005

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