When Robert Frost wrote, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both,” he might as well have been talking about professional surfing and higher education. Of the 32 professional surfers on the men’s world tour, not one has attended a four-year university. The same is true for women.
Surfing at large has battled with negative characterizations – the slack jaw, stoner, hippie, nitwit kind – for decades. The Spicoli-cization of surfers in the eyes of non-surfers you might say. This kind of stereotype wasn’t born out of thin air. Indeed, for a long time surfing personified a subculture that rejected the school, work, pension reality of mainstream society. Intrinsic in that was a non-scholastic reputation.
But, in most developed countries over the last several decades there has been a trend toward higher education across the general population. College attendance rates are higher than ever before, and within the surfing subculture (that maybe is no longer even a sub-culture anyway), that same pattern rings true. Consider the proliferation of college surf teams, for instance.
But for professional surfing in particular, and the path to get there, the importance of education has remained particularly elusive. Probably because, well, aside from the fact that only a handful of colleges on this planet offer an adequate training ground for a surfer to mature as a competitor, it’d be really hard – especially in the United States – to do both simultaneously. Online classes may be the only way. But for traditional schooling that leaves two options: try to qualify for the world tour, then if all goes south, go to college; or go to college and take a four-year hiatus from making a run at qualifying, then chase points on the WQS. The former runs the risk of never going to college (one study found only 6% of students that take a year or more off will earn a bachelor’s degree by 26), and the latter runs the risk of being outpaced by the competition, and losing sponsorship deals that might minimize the cost of traveling the world to chase qualification dreams.
To put it differently, take your average 14-year-old ripper here in the U.S. At some point before this kid started competing, one grom gained an edge in the local contest scene by choosing to be home schooled instead of attending mainstream public school, surfing two, or even three times a day. Maybe that kid even went on to achieve his professional surfing dreams without ever finishing high school. Other parents caught on and pulled their little prodigies from school too. In all likelihood, our 14-year-old friend is either leaning toward, or has already decided, that homeschool is the way to go, or has dropped out of high school altogether.
Surfing historian Matt Warshaw put it this way, “No doubt the planning and strategizing begins early, grade school maybe, and while you want to think that parents are steering their young pro tour hopeful to class, I suppose these days, more often than not, it comes down to ‘home schooling,’ which 98% means you’re not aiming at college, or just, I guess you’d say, a very relaxed idea about going to school at all.”
From then on, qualification becomes a young surfer’s raison d’être. Once the decision is made, few envision properly finishing high school, let alone attending college. And, of course, a select few make it on the dream tour, realizing their dreams, and that possibility motivates kids around the world – the slim shot that maybe they’re good enough.
But even surfers who’ve successfully made the jump to the World Championship Tour have expressed uneasiness about professional surfing’s relationship with education.
“My concern is with the amount of kids who choose, or feel the need to choose, to drop out of high school in order to chase their dream of becoming a pro surfer, and the number of parents that enable that decision,” says Ace Buchan. “I think the professional surf system has some questions to answer because the majority of kids who drop out of school to chase that dream end up 5 years down the track disillusioned, unfulfilled, uneducated, unsponsored and working out in the mines or waiting tables.”
But being a parent in this day and age is hard. Dino Andino is a former professional surfer himself, and the father of one kid (now adult) – Kolohe Andino – who made his world tour dreams a reality. When I spoke to him about what it’s like to come to the decision together to either pursue scholarship or surfing, Dino was candid. “You know I came from a broken home. And when it came to pro surfing, I was what you’d call a grinder,” he said. Dino would go to every event or photo shoot, and surf every contest. When Kolohe showed promise in surfing, he followed his father’s footsteps.
But Kolohe was good at school too, Dino said. He was in high achieving math classes. Ultimately surfing took over, and he never finished high school – something Dino expressed some regret over, looking back. “If there’s one thing I want people to know, it’s that all the small stuff doesn’t matter as much as you think it does in the moment,” he said.
When I asked him if he thought mandatory college attendance would be good for surfing, he had a point. “I’ve got buddies whose kids now have a shit ton of debt and no job, so I think it’s tough to speak on that.” He’s right. It’s a complex situation. College doesn’t necessarily equal a quality, paying job today. Not by a long shot. It’s a gamble, but almost certainly less so than surfing.
But if not a focus on college, maybe on high school. “Maybe there needs to be some sort of minimum standard education required to qualify for the tour of even the ‘QS,” says Ace.
Professional surfing is, obviously enough, very different from basketball, football, and even baseball. Surfing is a lifestyle, not a sport, you might say. It’s an individual, not a team. True. But on the college issue, they’re worthy of comparison for argument’s sake.
All leagues allow for an athlete to skip college altogether, but in the event that happens, the player is ineligible to be drafted into the league immediately after high school. In the NFL, the delay is four complete seasons. In other words, why not go to college and get a degree while you wait for eligibility to play? That explains why 50% of players have college degrees. In the NBA, the rule is a single year. Often players complete one year of college and skip out to play professional ball. That’s better than nothing. Baseball has the worst record of college graduates, as it doesn’t require any years of college per se, with 4.3% of players possessing a bachelor’s degree. Still, that’s better than surfing. Also consider that the NFL, NBA, and MLB all incorporate where the athlete attended school (even if it was just through high school) in the athlete’s bio online. The WSL does not. It, literally, cannot, because many would be left completely empty.
We asked the WSL what sort of infrastructure or support might exist for competitors hoping to pursue higher education. They declined to comment.
Of course, football, basketball, and even baseball are sports recognized by the NCAA. There is money to be made in sponsorship of college bowl games, and March Madness. College-level surfing doesn’t attract the same level of sponsorship, or even garner much hype whatsoever, because those surfing at the highest level avoid the Ivory Tower completely.
Professional surfing isn’t alone in this problem. Far from it. And college isn’t the end all be all, either. Plenty of men and women have become successful without a college education. But at the very least it’s a sad reality that surfing and college (and to a lesser extent mainstream high school) have to be mutually exclusive, and, as of now, a choice must be made. How many kids have lost that gamble? And is it really their fault? When you’re twelve years old and your sponsors are pumping you up about how great you are, is it all on you when you decide you’re going to effectively end the possibility of going to college to chase the glamor of the Dream Tour?
Ultimately, what it comes down to is what kind of sport we want surfing to be. Should the WSL require a high school diploma or GED? A year of college? Two? Four? Maybe that would push talent to colleges, giving surf teams more money through sponsorship deals. Hell, maybe then we’ll be watching live streams of college surf championships. But that requires change, and thoughtful reevaluation. First, professional surfing must recognize it has a problem. And that’s an issue that might require hitting the books.
Editor’s Note: The WSL acknowledged that no athlete on tour has attended a college or university but declined to comment on the topic of education’s place in professional surfing.
This article was originally published on The Inertia on August 3, 2016.