Shaun White’s initial foray into the public sphere did not end well. It was 1997, it was on MTV, and it ended with a fractured skull, broken hand, broken foot, and a knock out. He was 11 years old, a skateboarding and snowboarding child prodigy/novelty with some very smooth style, some very red hair, and a massive helmet. Before anything else, we should probably thank Shaun for that.
Nowadays it’s hard to get away from White, who has his face plastered on gum packages, video games, and anywhere snowboarding pops up in the mainstream. Within snowboarding culture, he has become nearly synonymous as “The Other,” someone who snowboards but clearly isn’t a snowboarder. For the large group of people who take riding to be more of a lifestyle decision than a sport, he’s persona non grata.
After his announcement on Wednesday that he’d be bailing on the slopestyle Winter Olympics event to focus on the halfpipe contest, a whole new avalanche of criticism was launched toward White. Some lamented the fact that another competitor — there were only three spots available on the U.S. Slopestyle team — was sitting on the couch back in the states, unable to compete while White decided he’d rather not ride after all. Others, including international slopestyle riders, declared him “scared to ride” and unwilling to enter a competition that he wouldn’t win.
There’s some merit to that idea, insofar as White’s halfpipe riding is leaps and bounds ahead of his rail game, and slopestyle is a contest comprised of rail tricks and jumps. According to the man himself, the biggest reason to ride halfpipe is the increased visibility. In that same interview with Snowboarder, White celebrates the fact that he’s just not on the same page as many other snowboarders, dismissing the idea of “core” riders as silly. In short, there’s a lot to unpack about Shaun White, and we’ll break down what makes him so important to snowboarding, in spite of himself.
Curriculum Vitae: The who, what, when, where, and how
White received his first sponsorship from Burton snowboards in 1994, at the age of 7. He was born in San Diego, California, in 1986, and had two serious surgeries for a heart condition before he was 2. Aside from Burton, he’s ridden snowboards for Volcom, worn sunglasses and goggles for Oakley, designs clothes for Target, and guzzled energy drinks for Red Bull.
Over the last 12 years, Shaun has accumulated 12 gold medals in the X Games between slopestyle and superpipe snowboarding, two more X Games golds in vert skateboarding, and seven other X Games medals. He has a pair of Olympic gold medals in halfpipe snowboarding from 2006 and 2010, and if he wins in Sochi, he will be the first American to get three straight gold medals in the same Winter Olympics event — although speedskater Shani Davis could also do this, so being the first may come down to event scheduling.
Off the slopes, White skateboards competitively and plays guitar in a band called the Bad Things, which played the Lollapalooza festival in 2013. He still lives in California, and his personal brand is operated through Shaun White Enterprises.
Shaun White is really, really good at snowboarding
First and foremost, Shaun White rips. Forget everything else for a minute and watch Shaun’s part from Volcom’s 2006 video Escramble. It’s some of the only outside-of-competition footage of White around. The dude is not bad at snowboarding, and he’s reaching that rare, Carmelo Anthony-esque level of demonstrable skill where people have been down on him for so long that his abilities might actually be underrated.
Most of the criticism of White comes from the tacit disapproval of the idea that someone who is so good at something, anything, can not be completely enamored with the lifestyle. That’s why there was so much controversy when he was awarded a perfect score at the X Games despite putting his hand on the snow. Never mind the fact that the run was absurd — the background here is that was White’s victory lap: He’d already won the contest before his final run — or that the last trick was something that hadn’t been landed before in a competition. It was the briefest of mitten contact on the snow that caused the outrage.
If that seems kind of silly, it is. But because White embraced the role of snowboarding Automaton through his distance from the scene (he’s famous for showing up, competing, and getting out of Dodge as fast as possible) and his unimpeachable track record, that’s what gets left. Because when someone calls scoreboard and the numbers are tallied, there’s not much else to critique.
Shaun White brings people into snowboarding
We’ve already talked about the gum and the video game, but Shaun White is even more famous than that. In 2010, when White left the IMG agency for a partnership with mega-agency CAA, he was drawing Davie-Brown Index scores comparable to New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez. (The Davie-Brown Index is a metric that marketing types use to measure the visibility and fame of any given athlete, musician, or otherwise famous person.) That’s orders of magnitude above any other action sports entity, let alone any other snowboarder. And more than any other rider, White keeps snowboarding in the mind of the general public.
To paraphrase a popular advertisement: When the general public thinks about snowboarding, the general public wants to go snowboarding. When the general public wants to go snowboarding, the general public pays to go snowboarding. When the general public pays to go snowboarding, more money goes into the sport. When more money goes into the sport, the gear gets better. When the gear gets better, people have more fun.
While White may claim the “mentality of ‘everybody’s homeys and we are all just at the contest and it doesn’t matter who wins’ is so fake,” the fact remains that at its core, snowboarding is about fun. It’s not about energy drinks or getting sponsored or winning contests. Ask anyone who started snowboarding in the ’90s — the gear was terrible, there wasn’t any real teaching methodology, and skiers hated us — but it was fun. It is fun. In fact, more people should do it because of how much fun it is. Every time someone stops at a gas station, they’ll see a box of gum with Shaun White’s face on it and they’ll think about learning to snowboard. That’s pretty rad.
Shaun White’s not really a snowboarder
This is where the knives come out. The so-called action sports have always had a tentative relationship with being portrayed in the mainstream media because of the equivocation between what the “core” riders see as a lifestyle and the contests, which play toward the quantified and qualified aesthetic more common to traditional sports. Because it’s impossible to “win” snowboarding, skateboarding, surfing, or anything else. They’re activities centered around things that are ridden in contrast to a game like basketball or football, which have constant scoring zones and fixed point values. Playing pass with a football is not playing football, but riding a snowboard is still snowboarding.
Go back and watch White’s Escramble part again. There are riders within snowboarding who make their living from snowboarding, who never enter contests — they shoot video parts. While Shaun is a talented rider, his unshakable focus on winning and competition (it’s all over every interview he’s ever had) is atypical of the greater snowboard tribe. Snowboarders have a reputation for being party-happy reprobates that don’t dig conformity and all sound like Jeff Spicoli, and while that reputation is certainly overblown, it’s not incorrect.
Whenever White mentions fun in regards to snowboarding, it’s always in a cursory fashion. In that Snowboarder interview, he maintains this: “If I was truly going to just have a great time, I would call my family or a couple friends, and just hit rails all day. I wouldn’t go to the pipe and try to learn doubles. I wouldn’t go hit jumps. I would just hit rails and goof around and hit boxes and [stuff] because that is fun.” The subtext that White’s fame among non-riders is owed to the unfun part of snowboarding the very idea that there would be an unfun part of snowboarding, is nothing less than a real drag, dude.