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Skateboarding Is Still a Crime, But the Sport Is Admirable

Walking down the street with a skateboard can lead to a conversation with the police

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April 5, 2013

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post on March 22, 2013.

By Laura Beth Nielsen

More than 25 years after I met and fell in love with my skateboarder boyfriend-now-husband, skateboarding is still a crime. When he takes our sons Zach, 16, and Skyler, 13, skateboarding in our home town of Evanston, just north of Chicago, they still are met with the possibility of tickets and fines up to $500 for skateboarding in the wrong place. Those wrong places include any municipal garage, parking lot, street, certain sidewalks, and on any planters, curbs, benches, ramps or rails. And yet, with the launch of spring, more skateboarders will be headed outside to practice their sport.

Even more insidiously, my sweet but long-haired kids are subject to the continued supervision, tacit disapproval, and even harassment by police officers, business-owners, and ordinary people for their choice of sport. That is even though it is a sport exemplifying the values of sportsmanship, dedication, perseverance, and determination that we celebrate in hero-athletes like NFL great Joe Flacco and and the college athletes we are watching this week in the NCAA basketball finals.

Skateboarding emerged in the 1960s, developed by surfers for an activity when the ocean waves were no good. It took off and was perceived as a money-making fad by big business in the 1970s. But skateboarding is a profoundly difficult and technical sport, leading many skaters to give up, and institutional backers pulled out. The primary skate magazine,Quarterly Skateboarder, was published from 1964-1965, and was revived in 1975 as Skateboarder only to fail again in the early 1980s.

In the 1970s and '80s, cities enacted ordinances prohibiting skateboarding, skate parks were filled in, and people who had fallen in love with the sport of skateboarding were left with nothing more than their skateboards and the curb in the local grocery store parking lot. And then only until the manager shooed them off his private property. That's when skaters started to create their own culture, networks, and commerce from the ground up.

For the next 50 years, skateboarders developed a largely independent sports industry now estimated to include more than 11 million skaters supporting a $4.8 billion market in the United States alone. The National Skateboarding Association was established in 1981 and the first X Games, which featured skateboarding, were held in 1995. By 2011 the X-games had an estimated U.S. viewership of 37 million and a world-wide audience of 232 million people in 192 countries. Now, even non-skating kids do not remember life before the X-games,Tony Hawk andThrasher Magazine. At least one public school in North Dakota has even added skating to its physical education regimen.

And yet Evanston, like other college towns, will not consider a skate park as part of a new recreation center. No university has a skatepark, though the University of Maine is considering one. A planned skate park in Skokie, Ill., the town adjacent to Evanston, was scrapped despite support from the Chamber of Commerce and Chief of Police.

Because there is a city ordinance prohibiting skateboarding on the street in Evanston, walking down the street with skateboard in hand can lead to a conversation with the police. They ask skaters to fill out "contact cards" in order to create a record of interactions with police -- documents that are, at the very least, constitutionally suspect. Yes, in the summer we can take the train to an outdoor park in Chicago. But in the winter, we are left driving 75 miles to Milwaukee to practice our sport.

Resistance to skateboarding and skateboarders at the local level despite the commercial and corporate success of the sport are astounding. Companies such as Fallen, Anti-hero, SpitFire, and Independent support the sport as well as more mainstream corporations like Vans and Nike.

But I am not just a rabid skate-mom, who wishes my sons could practice their sport closer to home and wear their skate logos without judgment. I also am also a Northwestern University sociologist of law who is trained in participant-observation and makes a living observing and analyzing social interactions.

As any soccer mom, basketball mom or football mom knows, having two kids who practice the sport means I've spent lots (and lots and lots) of time in skate parks all around the United States and parts of Europe. And what I observe is a sport practiced by dedicated and enthusiastic young people who should be admired, not scorned.

Skateboarders are dedicated; they show up to practice, rain, shine, or snow (if they have a place to do it) without a schedule. No coach tells them when to arrive, how long to work, or what the next trick is.

And yet they make progress. Even when the next trick involves staring down a 7-stair jump, dropping into a bowl that secretly terrifies their mom, or trying a 360 flip to manual for 12 years before landing it, skaters keep at it.

Skateboarders have a unique community; they teach, coach, learn, practice, and regulate their practice area silently but effectively. If you have ever watched skaters at a skate park, you know that two skaters cannot drop into the bowl at the same time. Avoiding collision in the bowl is crucial to avoid a trip to the hospital. And yet, no queue is formed because everyone wants to start their run from a different place in the park. Somehow, an unspoken arrangement plays out where everyone gets their turn.

When newer skaters show up who don't yet know the arrangement, they are gently guided, then chided about how to assess the park and determine whose turn is next. Better skaters coach weaker skaters saying things like, "your weight needs to be forward," "bend your knees more," or just, "try man." No one thinks twice if the more advanced skater is 8 years old and the skater getting the advice is 45.

Skaters are independent and self-sufficient; the sport is built on American principles we hold dear. It is practiced by independent trail blazers with unshakable belief in their athleticism and their sport. They gently enforce a set of guidelines for the benefit of the greater whole with the elders firmly but fairly guiding the next generation.

Despite these admirable qualities and the development of a sport that everyone wants to watch on television, communities still refuse to support this sport and skaters continue to be viewed as trouble. Skate institutions (like my own family's summer home away from home,Lake Owen Camp), are shutting down. Police stop skaters while business owners and citizens shoo away these athletes with thinly veiled threats. .

To be sure, some skaters want to be perceived as outsiders. Rebellion is part of the allure of the sport. But this edge has emerged because of the continued wholesale rejection of the sport and its athletes. And, despite the stereotype, skateboarders are no more likely to smoke pot than any other teenage boys.

It's time to make some changes. When a skater is practicing on a curb or stairwell, stop and admire his or her grace and athleticism. Compliment the trick. If your baby is sleeping or you are in a meeting and the noise is bothering you, consider explaining this to skaters rather than simply yelling, "I'm calling the cops!" Then, encourage your city to build a skate park (or at least don't protest it) because, as the skaters will tell you, "if your town does not have a skate park, then your town is a skate park."

- Laura Beth Nielsen is an associate professor in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

Topics: Opinion