Saturday, January 24, 2009
Updated: January 25, 8:28 PM ET
No Shame In Shaun
By Mary Buckheit
ESPN Action Sports
ASPEN, Colo. -- If the Winter X Games had a rider yearbook, what superlative would Shaun White win?
The average American (whatever that is) would probably vote him Most Popular, Best Hair or maybe Most Helpful. But his classmates might tell a different story. It takes a special kind of guy these days to admit a man crush on Shaun White's skills.
He's an Olympic gold medalist, a goldmine of mainstream marketability and an all-around goofball. And therein lies the problem. He's an over-achiever in a scene ruled by snowboarding's unspoken statutes of slack. He's a choirboy in a caste system of hardcore. He's the perfect girl you break up with for being too nice; the all-over print pullover you put back on the rack because it's actually a little too Cosby sweater.
It's on this basis that some boys in the biz begrudgingly vote Shaun White Most Likely to Make Millions, Class Kiss-Up, Teacher's Pet, or All-Around Media Whore. At the risk of inching one step closer to the math club, I've got to stand up to the Buzz Killingtons today and stick up for Shaun White. I know he might not be Class B'dass or Bro You Want By Your Side in a Street Fight, but you can't fault a guy who has been pulling his weightand yoursin the sport of snowboarding since he was seven years old (when Burton first picked up the little nugget).
It's not fair that White's mass appeal has so many eyes collectively rolling at every magazine cover swaddled in his cheesy grin. That's the nature of the beast, and the boy who has been trouncing the competition for years deserves it.
In the 2005-06 season, White won all six major halfpipe contests, including Olympic gold in Torino to cap the only undefeated snowboard season in history. For a while there, he was so unbeatable, he had the sort of envy effect on snowboarding that Tiger Woods casts on golf.
Unrivaled talent in individual sports is emphatically polarizing. You either love him or hate him; you're for him or against him. Ladies adore Shaun White. Fellas want to be him. Competitors want to beat him. Just once. And if that doesn't work, they want to tie him up, throw him in the trunk of a Cadillac and drive out to the docks.
It's funny to think that the eclectically endearing persona of Shaun White can ruffle so many egos. To the casual observer, he's just a likeable, laid-back, long-haired kid whose mix of moxie and laissez-faire are enough to make you wonder if the purpose of all that Red Bull is just to wash down Xanax.
He's a consummate pro. He's a gamer. He may lose, but he's never been in a position where the loss wasn't his own fault. If he rides his very best, nobody can beat him. He can do no wrong and he looks darn good doing it. That's why rooting for Shaun is like rooting for Zac Ephron to get the girl. And that's why it would be so difficult for a writer (especially a male writer) immersed in the snowboard scene to write this article. And by difficult, I mean, it would take some serious stones. Shaun White's just too much. He's the little indie band you used to go see in a college bar that just got nominated for a pop Grammy.
But to snowboard and music snobs, alike, I askwhose fault is that?
We want to keep our gems local and tight, but look at the age we're in. You're riding the mountain with a BlackBerry in one pocket an iPhone in the other and Bluetooth stereo sound pumping through your earflapsyou really believe it's possible to keep a worldwide phenom a secret? People Twitter to tell you when they're walking to the mailbox and leave an away message when they're stepping into the oval office with a magazine and you want to keep Shaun White's every move off the radar?
Real life doesn't work quite like a social network. You can't just click "Less about Shaun" every time Red Bull, and HP, and Target and Oakley and Burton post pictures of him on their wall. If you must hate on something, hate the sin, not the sinner. Shaun White's been mowing down the competition and using his brain to make business deals (really, lucrative business deals) that were offered to him because his talent is a commodity in demand.
For year's it's been Shaun White vs. The Field and it has been that way because nobody's been able to do what he does. It's not okay to go salty on his success. It's not fair that insiders, both actively and passively, scorn the guy who has single-handedly brought sponsors and dollars and droves of fans to the sport. That may not be what it's all about, but damned if it doesn't help every single one of us in the snowboarding community every day.
Shaun White's not a businessman; he's a business, man. So to those who dog him, I say be easy. He'd probably be the first to tell you he's not perfect. But he doesn't deserve the vendetta that some have with his name on it. His street cred took a fall when some 40-year-old state college communications major at a local news outlet first called him "The Flying Tomato." He's successful because he's the best at what he does. He's juiced with opportunities because he's what "they" want.
So if you want to root against Shaun because you've got an underdog in the race, I respect that, but if you're just bitter, get over yourself. You can't steal a kid's lunch money just because he has plenty to go around.