I recently had the pleasure of reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard’s transcendental musing on the beauty and horror of the natural world. In one particularly visceral passage, she outlines a traditional Inuit method of catching birds;
“…after they net a few birds with great effort and after much stalking, they thread them alive and squawking through their beaks’ nostrils, and fly them like living kites at the end of long lines. The birds fly frantically, trying to escape, but they cannot, and their flapping efforts attract others of their kind, curious – and the Eskimos easily net the others.”
A few weeks’ back, nestled in the Guardian website’s Sports section amongst the usual stories of sexism in tennis, racism in rugby and sycophantic cosying up to human rights violators in football, was a story that brought this passage to mind. The thumbnail photo, an image of Nyjah skating a contest handrail that looks like it was shot during an earthquake by a photographer who’d just hit the quaaludes harder than Di Caprio in Wolf of Wall Street, certainly wouldn’t have jumped out at me. The headline, however, stating as it did that a certain “UFC-backed skateboarding tour leans into right-wing media ties,” caught my eye.
The article focuses on the acquisition of Thrill One Sports & Entertainment group, who own the SLS brand (alongside Nitro Circus and various other displays of cross-discipline barrel scraping of the kind where a naked BMXer backflips over someone doing a kickflip benihana who is concurrently being pantomime taunted by a motocross rider with a lip ring and a Monster Energy neck tattoo). This company is owned by former UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta and UFC president Dana White, while added investment came from a TV producer who helped create The Ultimate Fighter, Rob Dyrdek (described in the article, in a pitch perfect bit of presumably unintentional shade throwing, as ‘former skateboarder Rob Dyrdek), and what the Wall Street Journal described as “a group of prominent conservative venture capitalists.” Fertitta and his wife are amongst the largest donors to the Republican Party in Nevada, contributing millions of dollars over the past decade. In a recent interview with well known skater owned publication Sports Illustrated, he was gushing in his belief that skateboarding can be ‘elevated to new heights’ with his application of the ‘UFC playbook’ to its marketing;
“That’s creating a better product, making it more consumer-friendly, and bringing the product back into arenas.”
To an extent, this just puts him in the same bracket as all the other culturally deaf rich types attempting to cash in on skateboarding’s cultural capital. One particular initiative of this playbook, however, is an agreement that Thrill One will stream their events on Rumble. This online video platform, in case you aren’t familiar, is famed for its hosting of Donald Trump’s social media platform ‘Truth Social’; for its offering of platforms to conspiracy parasite Alex Jones and the truly odious Andrew Tate, amongst others; and for the wealth of QAnon diarrhoea squirted onto its sidebars for perusal. Nestled deep in this repulsive little conspiratorial petri dish, you can now watch Street League in an updated format which Fertitta claims will allow the brand “…to promote some rivalries and give fans the matchups they want to see.” Make of that what you will (it all sounds a little WWE to me), but a quote later in the interview offers a potential motive for the purchase, beyond just the relentless pursuit of wealth;
“Skate culture is a real thing. The impact skate, surf and snow have had on youth is undeniable. There are 85 million skaters around the world at this point, so it’s a massive market from a participation standpoint.”
Even a small chunk of that 85 million must be looking pretty tasty a morsel to the cretins feted by Rumble, as will the level of social media clout commanded by top tier professional skateboarders. An inroad to a broader youth demographic would be seen as a major success for a loose conglomerate that, while worrying in terms of trends, is thankfully still only listened to by a small cross section of the Western world.
This is what made my neck hairs quiver and sphincter tighten as I read the article. The constant shifting of goalposts as to what constitutes a ‘far right’ opinion is in no small part due to the normalisation of those views in the mainstream media. Trump’s presidency, and his subsequent ubiquity in the mainstream media, only pushed those posts further right of centre. Skateboarding, with its emphasis on grassroots initiatives and independent action, may be seen as fertile soil by those on the libertarian right who conveniently eschew the obvious importance of the community aspect to what we do.
In the ad breaks between whatever ‘rivalry’ SLS’ new owners see fit to promote, viewers can explore what else Rumble has to offer. The channel’s questionably nebulous mission statement, if you can hear it over the crescendo of whistling dogs, is to be, “a high-growth neutral video platform that is creating the rails and independent infrastructure designed to be immune to cancel culture” – which, as Cole Nowicki points out in his insightful article on the whole debacle, is that their content moderation policies allow a lot more than the likes of YouTube and Vimeo. This means that the likes of Trump and Tate – all for free speech, as long as it doesn’t interfere with their twisted world views – have a platform once they have been given the boot from everywhere else. It’s like that pub at the bottom end of town you don’t go to because it’s full of blokes with National Front tattoos, creepy old guys who talk about their time in prison but refuse to say what they were in for, and Begbie-type out and out psychopaths. In fact the chances are that, if you do go to that pub, they’ll be as incensed about wokeness as the hosts of Rumble’s top viewed videos.
Enabling the most divisive and abhorrent content the channel can find, says Cole, “is integral to its brand positioning.” Watching the SLS recap so that I didn’t have to (I owe you a beer Cole), his explorations further into the site found the most watched videos were dedicated to conspiracy and transphobia respectively, while the most listened to podcast featured a prominent far right figure. To give weight to this ragtag alliance of bigots and conspiracy fetishists is something which would in a just world have Dyrdek sobbing himself to sleep at night.
It is not the rivalries and the match ups, then, that they are really promoting, but a world view equated with the absolute bottom feeders of the political landscape. It may seem like these ghouls, on the fringes as they are, can’t affect any real change; but, as stated earlier, the more airplay they receive, the more the slightly less reprehensible look like valid choices. Returning again to Cole, his description of SLS as ‘peanut butter for the mousetrap’ is particularly worrying when we consider the amount of young people who could now be exposed to hate-filled demagoguery at a young age. Clearly those who own SLS, and by extension those who continue to validate it by being a part of it, are too busy lining their pockets to worry too much about what this could mean for our community. They are, in a sense, the live kites guiding us into the net.
And, of course there is a connection between the money at stake and the opinions on display across Rumble. Many of their hosts play on a fear of ‘the other’, under the guise of common sense, to maintain a status quo which benefits Fertitta and his ilk – unsurprisingly, this brings us back to the ‘prominent conservative venture capitalists’ bankrolling the channel. Naomi Klein put it succinctly in an article written in the early years of Trump’s presidency;
“The goal is all-out war on the public sphere and the public interest, whether in the form of antipollution regulations or programmes for the hungry. In their place will be unfettered power and freedom for corporations. It’s a programme so defiantly unjust and so manifestly corrupt that it can only be pulled off with the assistance of divide-and-conquer racial and sexual politics, as well as a nonstop spectacle of media distractions.”
If these arrayed interests can engage with the next generation, they have won a large-scale battle in the war for hegemonic control of public opinion. It would be a mistake to see skateboarding as existing in a vacuum, and this is a clear example of the culture we have fought so hard to build up being used to polish up some truly repugnant turds – helping to validate the opinions of rapists and xenophobes.
The chances are that many people will be watching SLS via Rumble without having any idea what the brand stands for. So what can be done? The most obvious way to defuse this potential threat is something that, I believe, we as skateboarders often do without thinking; engaging with those entering our scene, making it an open and enjoyable space for as many people as possible, and calling out hatred wherever it is found. By all means boycott SLS, petition the companies involved to remove themselves and make it clear that we see what is going on behind the scenes – but, on a broader level, chat to the kids skating down at your local park or lurking in the skate shop, let them know they are part of something bigger than learning slappies down at the local Morrisons curb, and help fan the flames of the next generation of organised resistance.