Is Skateboarding the New Soccer?
Cal State East Bay professors investigate one of the fastest-growing youth sports in America
At Town Park in West Oakland, a healthy crowd of skateboarders has gathered. Wheels clack and roll, and every so often, when someone lands a trick, boards tap the ground in respect — the unspoken language of the land. Otherwise, there’s very little conversation. It’s Saturday morning and these athletes of varying ages, races and ethnicities are here honing a craft.
This diverse group is the new face of skateboarding, laying to rest stereotypes of outsiders, rebels and kids looking to cause trouble. Matthew Atencio, an associate professor of kinesiology at Cal State East Bay, points out some of the new breed of mainstream “boarders” who are riding, twisting, leaping, rolling — and pushing skateboarding away from its punk-flavored origins toward critical mass acceptance.
Don’t believe it? The industry has shown up everywhere from television commercials to the runways of Paris Fashion Week. Competitions have grown from the X-Games to including skateboarding in the 2020 Olympics. All-girl skate clubs, such as the Pink Helmet Posse (whose members are all under the age of 10) are making headlines. The American Association of Retired Persons has endorsed the benefits of skating for the 50-plus crowd — and partnered with skateboarding companies for advertising and member discounts.
“The game has changed from the core group of young guys who [were] skateboarding, to it being a lot more of a mainstream activity,” Atencio says. “It’s one of the fastest-growing youth sports in the nation. But it’s different. You don’t need lots of people, you don’t need a team, you don’t need a referee, you don’t need to rent a field, you don’t need uniforms.”
These differences between skateboarding and other “traditional” youth sports are what have led four fellow Cal State East Bay kinesiology professors to investigate how and why the sport is changing. The team is made up of Atencio, who has researched youth sports programs and recently won an “Editor’s Choice” top paper award from the international Leisure Studies journal; Becky Beal, who has been publishing on skateboarding and other extreme sports for more than 25 years; and scholars ZáNean McClain and Missy Wright, who helped design the study and collect and analyze data.
Based on research that shows 2.6 million fewer kids ages 6-12 playing football, soccer, baseball and basketball from 2008-2013, with identified causes such as lack of playing time, dislike of coaches and hyper-competitive environments, the professors have spent the last few years visiting skate parks throughout the Bay Area, interviewing kids, parents and other stakeholders. The result — “Moving Boarders: Skateboarding and the Changing Landscape of Urban Youth Sports” released by the University of Arkansas Press.
The book offers a fresh look at the traditionally white male “outsider” sport and how it has become increasingly well-funded, organized, and popular among families, girls and ethnic minorities. From parks that require fees and safety gear, to unofficial spaces with DIY ramps, “Moving Boarders” finds that each community has its own rules, behavior code and culture — with one key similarity.
The skaters, Beal says, “have complete ownership of their learning. No one’s telling them what to do. It’s more like art or dance. Creativity and style are everything in skateboarding.”
This emphasis on individuality represents a shift away from the values of traditional team sports — despite skateboarding’s increasingly structured personality — that the professors say is being more and more validated by families, communities and policymakers. They believe it’s a cultural transformation that is not only important to understand now, but will be essential to any student pursuing a career in parks and recreation, city planning/policy, athletics, education, and kinesiology-related fields, in the years to come. And, the professors’ ethnographic approach to research — a compilation of on-the-ground conversations and observations — highlights their philosophy of gathering rich data about everyday life.
“[The book] serves as a critical thinking tool for students,” Beal says. “It’s not preparing them for a particular job, it’s showing them a way of approaching people and topics that they can apply to any future work they do.”
Ebow Dawson-Andoh, a Cal State East Bay graduate student who works as an analyst at a Bay Area think tank called Mathematica Policy Research, spent many a Saturday helping the professors with their book. Dawson-Andoh was first drawn to the project because he saw similarities between skateboarding and his own fitness passion, Parkour (a free-running activity that uses existing architectural structures as obstacles).
“What drew me to [the project] was the motivation and spirit behind [skateboarding] that is the same as it is in Parkour,” Dawson-Andoh says. “To engage in physical activity in your environment, but to use your physical environment in a way it wasn’t designed for, not necessarily to break the rules, but to experience a sort of freedom. They’re both about self-discovery.”
It’s exactly what the professors are hoping to share with their students, and what inspired them to study skateboarding in the first place. Activity here, Atencio says, “is not adult-driven, or coach-driven. I would argue that this does a better job of getting people to flow and interact than most youth sports.”
Back at Town Park, he continues to observe the hive of skaters dipping and soaring in the Oakland sunshine. “What I liked most about sports [growing up] was getting to work on your craft, to be creative and just play, but that’s drilled out of you … At soccer practice, I have seen three dads coaching 10 kids. The kids are all standing in a line and every single thing gets regimented. Does it surprise you that kids get fed up with that?”