Surfing's "Rampant" Drug Problem

Kelly Slater is not the most powerful person in surfing, but he might be the most influential. From building wave pools to sharing opinions on current events, he has the ability and (more refreshingly) the candor to thoughtfully address nearly any topic on surfing's cultural spectrum. So when he was quoted in the Australian newspaper The Courier Mail yesterday as agreeing with a reporter that professional surfing has a recreational drug problem, you could almost hear the industry collectively catch its breath.

Of course, everyone with even the slightest contact with surf culture knows, or can infer, that drug use is "rampant" and "full-on"—Slater's words, not mine. Part of the reason that Slater's comments seem revelatory is the ghost of Andy Irons. To this day, there has been little honest, public discussion of how Irons died and the extent of the culture of drug-use that surrounded him. By saying that Irons had "put himself in that position," and that it is impossible to help drug addicts if they don't want the help, Slater came as close as anyone in the industry has come to addressing the matter honestly.

More problematic were his comments on performance enhancing drugs. I agree that there isn't "a drug you can take to make you surf better." But that's a bit like saying there isn't a drug you can take to make you play baseball better. Surfing is a combination of exercises, some of which, like stamina and recovery time, can in fact be aided by using performance-enhancing drugs. Baseball is an illustrative example, because many players did not use banned substances when they were younger; instead they started to take them to fight off the effects of aging to prolong their careers. Taking performance enhancers to prolong a surfing career is not at all far-fetched, especially given that the physical demands on pro surfers are as large as they have ever been.

So is the money. Despite the global economic downturn, high-ranking pro surfers are making more money today than their Bud Tour brethren ever imagined. Wherever there are large sums of money to be made, there will be people willing to break rules to make that money. Surfing is just as susceptible to doping and—something that hasn't been addressed by the companies that own the tour—the fixing of events as any sport. That the ASP – and the brands that run it—were apparently lax in their drug testing is disappointing.

Otherwise, it's debatable as to whether recreational drug use in surfing actually constitutes a "problem." Though I'm not a drug user (no, I don't mind being tested), I am not particularly bothered by the notion that many surfers engage in recreational drug use. Especially if said drugs are depressants like alcohol or cannabinoids like marijuana and hashish. The larger issue, as it was with Irons, is that young men and women who are talented surfers are essentially raised from a young age in an industry that is permissive of these substances. Perhaps this would not be a big deal if, as the stalwarts still insist when they meet with the parents of potential team riders, the industry were run by an extended family preoccupied with the well-being of youngsters. It's not. A fraternal element certainly exists in the surf industry (quite literally), but it's business. And in business, there are casualties, which is understandable. It's not understandable, however, when a (professional) culture's implicit endorsement of drug-use endangers our sport's emerging heroes. That's a problem.

I was at a party in Puerto Rico a week after Irons died. At this party, there were competitive professional surfers doing drugs—cocaine and marijuana, in case you were curious. We were all drinking alcohol. It was a pretty sedate scene; from what I gathered, no one was going to overdose or induce an alcoholic coma. In other words, it was a party, like many I have attended outside the surf world, for adults. In this way, it was similar to big-wave riding, or maybe the fetish-sex scene—pastimes that adults can enjoy but are probably inappropriate for children. These events can be dangerous at times, but they are certainly enjoyable and generally harmless outlets for those who choose to indulge in them. Honestly, I can't see anything wrong with being part of a culture that is permissive of drugs—in fact; any sub-culture that is explicitly against drugs is probably against most other fun things as well.

I don't, however, want to be part of a culture than churns out young addicts. Surfing does not have a drug problem; it has an accountability problem. It is so opaque, so enamored with its own stars and legends while at the same time so uncomfortable with self-criticism that one of its brightest lights was able to self-destruct in full view of the entire population. No one was responsible and everyone was responsible. That is a problem that is far deeper than drug tests.

Editor's note: Kelly Slater clarified his initial comments in a statement to AAP, stating: "To clarify my earlier comments on the topic on the use of recreational drugs, in no way, shape or form is that referring specifically to the ASP tours or the actual 'sport' of surfing. My comments were referring to the colorful history of the culture and sports in general."

This essay originally appeared on The Inertia.