For long-term Ed Leigh fans like myself, his piece on Shaun White was a classic of the genre – irreverent, stuffed with passion about snowboarding and complete with trademark anal sex gag.
Now I love Ed like a brother, and have been snowboarding and arguing about snowboarding with him for almost twenty years now. But I have to say I think he’s wrong on this one. I can barely believe I am typing the words, but I’m going to have to defend Shaun White here.
Why? Because Ed’s piece was basically about Shaun’s riding and career choices. And for me the most relevant and interesting thing about Shaun White right now is nothing to do with his riding. I think we passed that point around the time he scored his first Rolling Stone cover.
Nor is it meaningless, unprovable (and, frankly, a bit desperate) speculation about ‘whether he enjoys riding’ or not, or whether he’s got any mates.
Nope, for me what’s interesting about Shaun White is the fact that his level of fame and achievement have made him this lightning rod for people’s ideas about what snowboarding ‘should’ be about.
Which, when you think about it, is actually fairly mental. Take Ed’s assertion that Shaun ‘should’ do a great video part because it would ‘redeem’ him. I mean, that’s an insanely subjective statement right there. You might as well say ‘You know, if Shaun took up cake-baking, I’d have a lot more respect for him’. It’d make about as much sense.
For a second, let’s imagine if some random read Ed’s piece and shirtily accused him of being frivolous for cracking anal sex gags in Whitelines because he has a ‘position’ with the BBC, and told him he ‘should’ write for, say, the Daily Mail instead.
I think we’d rightly conclude that this person was unfairly expecting a public figure to vicariously fulfill their own value judgements and should perhaps go and take a long, hard look in the mirror.
Go down this road and, however much you dress it up in platitudes of authenticity, you’re basically an irate parent saying the twenty year old footballer shouldn’t get drunk on his day off ‘cos he should be a role model to their kids.
Aren’t we snowboarders supposed to be better than that?
The other thing is, for every person like Ed, there’s somebody else who thinks Shaun White is justified in the choices he’s made. The comment section underneath his article made that pretty clear. So why wouldn’t he want to please himself in that position? What other choice does he have? And who is anybody else to say he’s wrong?
To me, this is an unfair level of pressure and expectation to heap upon a person, whether they’re Shaun White or David Beckham. Because they can never win. I mean, his job is to be good at snowboarding. He’s very good at snowboarding. Isn’t that enough?
Clearly not, and here’s why: Shaun’s complete lack of apology for the snowboarder he is makes people uncomfortable because it reveals a couple of truths we tend to ignore.
My own experience is that most serious riders are actually quite like Shaun White in the way they approach snowboarding. They’re like any top athletes. They’re competitive and they want to win, whether that’s a gold medal at the Olympics, or a race home at the end of the day.
Take the legendary Blaise Rosenthal. I was lucky enough to go riding with Blaise last year and at one point he said something refreshingly honest. He said the thing he enjoyed when he was a pro was rocking up to a fun park, knowing he was the best guy there, knowing everyone knew it, and then stomping tricks no-one else could do and basically rubbing people’s noses in it.
The other thing is that Shaun White reminds us that snowboarding has changed. Hell, the world has changed. Has nobody read that Illicit Snowboarding blog about who actually owns our main brands these days? Burton, who cop the most shit in snowboarding for being this ultra corporate entity, are basically the only brand that are still rider-owned. Unless you build your own boards, hitchhike to ski hills and hike all day long, NOBODY and NOTHING is ‘core’ any more. I can’t believe we’re still having this argument.
Travis Rice? I mean, did nobody notice those two gas-guzzling branded Red Bull helicopters following him around in the Art of Flight? Where was the need for that? Has nobody noticed that lovable old techno-hippie Nicolas Muller rides for Nike these days?
Twenty years ago, Adidas, for example, had about as much to do with snowboarding as Target did. Yet here they both are. Why? Because they see a market opportunity. The only difference between the two is that Adidas spend a lot of more money paying riders like Jake Blauvelt and releasing a carefully orchestrated set of teasers so that snowboarders can delude themselves into ignoring the truth of the entire transaction. I think they call it marketing.
Shaun White’s crime is that he makes no attempt to hide these uncomfortable truths. He probably couldn’t hide them if he tried. To be honest, I doubt he thinks any of this is a problem. For better or worse, he is who he is. And in twenty first century snowboarding, where pretending you’re some paragon of authenticity while paying thousands of pounds to go and swan around in an island for rich people seems to be some mystifying part of the snowboarding identity, that is not acceptable.
But it also means he’s not a hypocrite. And in some weird way, I actually admire him for that.