Catching a cultural wave
Associate Professor Rebecca Beal critiques the sociology and marketing of skateboarding and surfing
BY FRED SANDSMARK ’83
“If I lived in a different time and place, I would be a skateboarder.”
So says Rebecca Beal, associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology at Cal State East Bay. For Beal — who goes by Becky — the jump from the underground culture of skateboarding to the halls of academia isn’t as difficult a maneuver as it may seem. Both involve perceiving the world in an independent, unconventional way.
Beal — who conducts rigorous academic research on sport’s connection to society, politics, race, and gender — has made the study of skateboarding culture, and the ways it has been adopted and commercialized by mainstream society, a focus of her work. She’s recently expanded her studies to include surfing. Fittingly, her small office in the Physical Education building on the Hayward campus is adorned with memorabilia including a colorful surfboard-shaped message board, a radio-controlled Tony Hawk toy, and poster of Cara-Beth Burnside, one of the world’s top female skateboarders.
The path that brought Beal to this office features a few twists and turns. Growing up in Minnesota in the 1960s and ’70s, Beal was athletic and loved to play but wasn’t happy participating in organized sports. “I never liked the regimented, authoritarian perspective,” she says. But when she moved to southern California to study history at Pomona College, she had a different athletic experience running middle distance and cross country. “They were teachers, not authoritarians,” she says of her college coaches. “The experience really affected my way of looking at the benefits of participating in sport.”
She substitute-taught at the high school level, which she didn’t enjoy, and coached, which she loved. She went to graduate school with plans to coach full-time and there took a class on the sociology of sport that changed her direction.
“I (became) interested in (studying) people who chose an alternative model of sport because of my own history of not always fitting in with the mainstream,” she explains, “That’s how I got involved with skateboarding.”
Her doctoral dissertation, written at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley and completed in 1992, was a two-year ethnography of about 40 skateboarders in three friendship groups. “I went to their parties, I watched them skate, I got to know their families,” she says. “My motivation was (to show) that physical activity could be done in a way that was more democratic, more humane, more creative, more artistically inclined, and less abusive of other people.” The skaters were happy to share. “I didn’t have anyone blow me off,” Beal recalls.
And like an experienced surfer catching a good wave, Beal’s timing was perfect. “People thought I was crazy, writing a dissertation about skateboarding,” she laughs. “Then, by the time I finished it, the X Games came along and boom! My knowledge was in demand (among academics). Now people don’t think I’m quite as crazy.”
Beal’s research wasn’t about the biomechanics of skating — the colloquial term for skateboarding — but the norms and cultural values associated with the sport. “One of the things that attracts people to skating is that it’s got — or used to have — an underground ethos,” she says. “That’s what I’m interested in.”
When she scrutinized skateboarding closely, Beal got to know its darker underside. “Initially I thought skateboarding was kind of open, cool, and democratic,” she says. “But it became obvious that it was not. It’s historically pretty sexist, definitely pretty homophobic — the two tend to go hand in hand — and historically racist, though that depends on where you are geographically.”
And while she found aspects of skater culture disheartening — particularly the disrespectful, even dismissive way women’s skills and abilities were seen and treated by men in the sport — she had discovered a rich research subject that combined her love of sport, sociology, and history. Beal embarked on an academic career, teaching and conducting research first at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb and then at University of the Pacific in Stockton.
Over the years she has studied the roles of religion, alternative masculinity, art, credibility, and authenticity in sports, both conventional and alternative. She also has explored how business exploits skateboarding’s underground culture to sell products ranging from after shave to trucks. Additionally, she studied how companies worked to maintain skateboarding’s noncommercial, underground image — key to its appeal — while simultaneously making it America’s fastest growing sport.
In recent years, Beal has turned her attention to surfing —in part, because she lives near Half Moon Bay — and has found parallels between it and skateboarding. Among those parallels: marketers’ seemingly contradictory desires to cultivate and maintain surfing’s cool, independent cachet while selling related products to a mass audience.
Along those lines, in February Beal completed coauthoring a paper about Mavericks Surf Ventures, the company that promotes the Mavericks big wave surfing contest, one of the sport’s biggest and most prestigious events. Mavericks Surf Ventures also sells surfing equipment, videos, and fashion, and sponsors a concert tour featuring the punk bands that play during the Maverick’s contest. “They’re selling a way of life that people can think is cool,” Beal says. The concerts are held at Hard Rock Café — a chain of formula restaurants that, probably not coincidentally, was built on a rebellious cultural phenomenon: rock and roll.
Beal notes that the outsider allure of surfing isn’t just being sold downstream to consumers; it’s also flowing upstream to corporations who want their employees to embrace the surfing ethos. For example, top big-wave surfer Jeff Clark — the man who popularized the Maverick’s wave, worked with (and sued) Mavericks Surf Ventures, and holds the trademark for the term “Maverick’s” — was recently engaged by a large international bank. “They wanted him to help them build a culture in their workforce that represented all these neo-liberal ideals of flexibility, independence, and risk-taking that surfing represents,” Beal says.
Although some alternative athletes, like Clark, are popular with large corporations, the sports sociology Beal practices rarely endears her to companies trying to ride the sometimes-gnarly crest between mass appeal and outsider culture. “No way, with the kind of research I do, is Nike going to call me up, because I’m critical of them” (for their attempts to commercialize a nontraditional sport), she says.
While Beal’s research may not please sports sponsors, she thinks it enhances her role as an educator. She teaches classes on sport in contemporary society, sport and racism, sport and social inclusion, and sport in politics. She acknowledges that her intellectual, interdisciplinary work doesn’t fit the stereotype of a kinesiology department (“We’ve had the dumb jock reputation forever,” she says with a hint of a sigh) but says it's a perfect fit for Cal State East Bay.
Beal joined the faculty in 2008 when her partner of 20 years, Jennifer Sexton, took a job at Stanford University and the couple moved to the Bay Area. “What attracted me to this school was its commitment to social justice,” Beal says of Cal State East Bay. “They don’t just pay lip service to it here. It’s fun to work in a place where people are talking about social justice issues on a regular basis.”
She’s also impressed by her colleagues’ intellectual depth. “I’m proud of this department,” she says. “We have two top sports psychologists here, and our sports historian is really well known. All my colleagues are committed to multidisciplinary work and to social justice.”
Beal adds that the CSUEB kinesiology department’s interdisciplinary nature — she describes it as “studying human movement from every discipline” — is relevant to the teachers, coaches, athletic trainers, and therapists that it educates. "The students definitely have to understand the social and cultural contexts of their work, along with the psychology and physiology of it,” she says. “And they have to know how to teach. To be good at it is really hard.” (See “An Academic Movement,” facing page).
She finds that the University’s student diversity is another plus. “This is the most nontraditional age group I’ve ever worked with, which is beautiful,” she says. “Especially for sociology—it’s all these different life perspectives coming into a classroom. I love teaching here.”
And while she thrives on working with students, Beal sometimes laments the fact that the teaching load at Cal State East Bay leaves little time for writing and research. Still, just as a surfer with a day job finds a way to get out on the water, Beal makes time for it. She’s working on an encyclopedia of skateboarding, to be published by Greenwood Press, and developing topics for future academic articles.
And Beal is busy promoting the perhaps-radical notion that, done right, sport can have broad-based, positive social impact. That’s a tough message to deliver in an environment when so much of sport is about spectatorship rather than participation, she says, but she presses on. “I’m a salesperson,” Beal explains. “I try to sell to my students the idea that there are other ways of doing physical activity — ways that can benefit participants physically, mentally, and spiritually. It doesn’t have to be about winning.”