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Judge Dread

by Andy Davis / 25.10.2011

Travis Logie Going Down

While you were poking your eyes out in impotent rage at Bryce Lawrence and the South African rugby team’s ability to win everything but the ballgame, in the small neglected corner of the sports world known as professional surfing another South African athlete was being maligned by the administrators of the code.

To cut a long story short, Travis Logie did exactly what he needed to win his way through to round 4 of the Quiksilver Pro in South West France, but still lost to the more famous Australian, Taj Burrow. Even the commentators were perplexed at the by now infamous decision to award Burrow the 7.47 points he needed to win, for a wave he only did one average turn on.

Taj Burrow

Taj Burrow looking kinda smug

I wrote a cursory post on the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) Facebook page, saying that the judging in Travis Logie’s heat was squiff and asked what recourse a surfer has to appeal these decisions and get them overturned. For my efforts I found myself removed from the Facebook group and my original post deleted.

2011 sees the ASP picking up a lot of heat for how they’re running the sport. And in reaction they’ve become increasingly intolerant of any form of dissent. Which invariably only adds fuel to the fire. Earlier this year one of the sport’s great characters, World Tour veteran Bobby Martinez was not just fined but banned from the Quiksilver New York Pro when he called bullshit on the ASP’s new rules and regulations in a post heat interview. A few weeks later, In the early rounds of the French event another surfer Fred Patacchia was fined for comments he made about judging bias – even after winning his heat. He was also later forced by the ASP to delete a comment on the same subject on his Twitter page – lest he pick up a similar ban and fine combo as Martinez.

All of this, gentle sports fan, points to an administration on the backfoot and making all the wrong moves under pressure. To borrow from the contemporary surfing parlance, “the ASP is in combo-land”. At the end of 2009 the ASP was shaken to its foundations by a swirl of rumours surrounding Kelly Slater’s plans to endorse an ESPN backed rebel tour. They managed to stave that off by reengineering the WCT. By the start of the 2011 season a whole bunch of new rules had been introduced including new judging criteria (forcing judges to reward progressive new school surfing moves), a radical new contest formula and a mid year reshuffle of the bottom 16 surfers.

Now pro surfing is supposed to take place on the best waves the planet has to offer with the most innovative surfing on display. But after three years of recession, financial crises and kak retail conditions, the four major surf/fashion brands that fund the game, are hurting. In 2011 the ASP announced a line up of major events that seemed to favour average beach breaks in high density areas like Rio, New York City and San Francisco, instead of the far flung tropical locations with the best waves. Not because the surfing will be better but because it makes sense for the brands to have the world’s biggest surfers creating hype right on the doorstep of some of the world’s biggest markets. These are just my wicked leaps of logic here and it’s an argument that’s been bandied about plenty, so let’s indulge in a fresh bit of conspiratorial thinking for a moment.

The relationship between professional surfing and the surf brands that fund the sport is kind of murky. Unlike tennis there are no third party institutions like Wimbledon or Roland Garros, the four biggest brands sponsor all 11 stops on the pro tour and control more than just the naming rights, they “own” the events and are responsible for everything from the broadcast to employing the commentators and supplying the event infrastructure. The ASP relies heavily on these brands for its continued existence. No bones about it.

A spate of erratic judging decisions, that will invariably make or break the careers of professional athletes, just add more fuel to the fire. And because we’re in the middle of a recession and on the verge of another financial crisis, all of these things are exaggerated. The situation is highly flammable. So instead of opening up the sport and pushing towards greater transparency and open communication, the governing body is pretty flippen touchy right now. They are taking any direct criticism badly and throwing a cloak of secrecy over the whole damn show, which makes you wonder even more: what are they hiding?

Maybe it’s just a coincidence and perhaps these are the rantings of an increasingly paranoid journalist prone to conspiracy theories. Maybe. But, probably like you, I have a vision for professional surfing – where the best surfers compete on the world’s best and most challenging waves, where the integrity of the governing body is beyond reproach and where the role of the sponsors is clearly defined and controlled. And where the surfers have the freedom to express themselves on matters that directly affect not only their careers, but the future of the sport. Because at the end of the day, they are the rockstars and surfing has always been a loose affiliation of rebels, mavericks misfits and freaks, not to mention highly gifted athletes. And we need to protect the spirit of surfing because, as Bobby Martinez was at pains to point out, this is not tennis.

Bobby Martinez

Not a tennis player

So I got in touch with the ASP’s media director Dave Prodan and emailed him some hard questions, CCing ASP CEO Brodie Carr in on the action. Frankly, I was surprised he answered.

“Surfing is a robust sport, surely there’s space for divergent views and criticism of the ASP?”

“Absolutely.” he replied

“How do you respond to the charge that the ASP, as an institution, is becoming increasingly authoritarian and opaque? Why so defensive?”

“ASP is a non-profit organization whose primary goal is promoting the best surfing possible. We’re owned by the surfers who compete on tour. I wouldn’t say we are defensive.”

Let’s talk about the role of the sponsors. In most other professional sports, like tennis, the events themselves stand alone as institutions – take for example Wimbledon, the French Open, Flushing Meadows – they’re not the Nike French Open or Adidas Wimbledon – do you think the surf brands have too much power over the sport considering that they “own” the different stops on tour. Is that a bad thing? Wouldn’t it be better for the events themselves to be established and run by a third party ? Would that not also diffuse any conspiracy theories that the judges are susceptible to pressure from the brands to favour their big name surfers.”

“The brands who have been there since the inception of the Dream Tour [and] have grown this sport to near unimaginable levels. The ASP has never been a closed shop and has been open to non-endemic sponsors coming in and promoting the world’s best surfing – we’re seeing that now through the emergence of Nike and the like. The ASP Board of Directors, which votes upon all tour decisions, is comprised of two surfer representatives, two event representatives, two independents and an independent chairman. I’ll note that no one from the “ASP Administration” (CEO, CFO, CTO, Media Director, Tour Manager, Head Judge, etc.) sits on this board and that it is independent in nature.”

“I’ve heard a lot of the lower profile surfers on the tour mention that when they come up against the big names they can’t just beat them – they have to smash them – because any marginal calls are going to go the way of the big names. (Burrow vs Logie seems like a good example here). We’re in the midst of another financial crisis – obviously the surf brands have a vested interest in the big names winning – to protect their substantial investments in these athletes. Does the ASP feel that pressure? Especially considering that three or four brands ‘own’ the 11 events.” I say.

“The ASP, and especially the judges, have never been influenced to push any particular surfer through any heat. I’ll remind fans that what it appears like from the webcast, the heat replays and the like, does not 100% reflect how it appears in actuality.” He replies.

Travis Logie

Travis Logie channels his angst into his iPad

“What recourse does a surfer like Travis Logie have – when he’s eliminated from an event on what seems, on the surface of it, a dodgy call by the judges? (This was the crux of my question on the ASP Facebook page. For which I was removed).” Huh?

“Following the heat, it is my understanding that Travis met with the judges and reviewed the heat in the tower. They went through each wave, discussed their points and I imagine that Travis still disagreed with the result. From my understanding, it was a difference between great surfing on great waves (Logie) and exceptional surfing on good (waves) – a very tight heat, either way you view it. There has never been an overturned decision for heats. There have been re-surfs due to unforeseen circumstances (sharks, etc.). There is a Judging Committee and an ASP Technical Committee (on which sit surfers, events, admin and judges) which review things like criteria and the like. This is where situations like that will be discussed.” Finish and klaar. Then, as a parting shot, Dave chucks in: “I will point out the irony in presenting a theory in which the brands affect the judge’s decisions and cite a situation where a Quiksilver team rider went down in a Quiksilver event.”

As for the irony, and this is my take here, a surfer like Taj has so much marketing momentum behind him that it’s “unfavourable” for the sport as a whole (given the recession et al) that he should lose a tight heat to a ‘low profile’ surfer like Travis Logie, even if Travis is sponsored by Quik at a Quik event. My charge is that the ASP as a whole is too close to the four big brands that “own” all 11 events on the World Tour and it’s not beyond the balance of probabilities, given the dire financial situation, that judges directly feel the pressure to favour a big name surfer (that the major brands spend millions on endorsing and promoting each year), over a relative unknown when it comes to a close heat. Let’s not forget about the head judge here, who’s job it is to ensure all the judges scores are kept ‘in line’. And when all the video evidence points out the judging inconsistency that seems to support this, you have a crisis developing. Of course banning outspoken critics like myself from a Facebook page is only going to ensure that more articles like this get written.


Rio Surf Stadium

“You can write it off as conspiracy speak.” I say back in conclusion. “But this stuff is going to fester and the discontent will grow until professional surfing has strong, neutral third party institutions and the ASP doesn’t overreact to every criticism by banning or fining surfers and attempting to remove dissenters from social media. That just fuels the perception that there’s something dodgy happening backstage.”

And just as we were agreeing to disagree and everything seemed to be suspended in the obfuscation of well managed PR speak, like a bolt from the blue, the ASP’s Brodie Carr wades into the conversation and does a pretty good job of jamming his rubber bootie in his mouth. At least that’s my opinion.

“Andy, the surfers want ASP to run professionally and we expect the same from them. We are no different to other sports with our stance on social media. Its a black and white issue mate.” Brodie issues forth from his keyboard.

But is it really? I asked a bonafide question on their social media channel and got banned. A small example of the greater tyranny being exacted upon the professional athletes who dare to express their disillusionment with the ASP’s running of the sport.

Then Brodie goes and loses it. “So let me guess. [Your magazine] has no brand ads that run in it… No Billabong ads? You are calling the kettle black mate. If anything you are just showing your national pride to your fellow South African surfer. No problem in that. Just don’t try and make out that Billabong had anything to do with this. That’s ridiculous.”
“Or” he says as an afterthought, “you can put your money where your mouth is and step up and run a WT event yourself. Got $3m?”

Now them’s fighting words. It’s this kind of dumb, recidivist thinking, that reduces complex issues to “black and white”, that dug the hole the ASP currently find themselves in.

*Originally published on Zigzag.co.za

**All images © ASP.

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