Matt George’s critique of the ASP world tour ran in the December 1988 issue of SURFER Magazine. This version has been slightly edited.

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During its 12-year existence, the world professional surfing tour has changed the face of the surfing experience, and all of us along with it. Despite the rose-colored view offered by organizations, sponsors, media, and some competitors, all is not well within the brocaded arena. Now, for the first time in its history, professional surfing has become a dangerous entity—one capable of eroding the very heart and soul of riding waves.

Back in 1976, a small cadre of incredible surfers had a dream, and together made a deal down at their collective crossroads to trade a lifestyle for professionalism. Today, we find ourselves face-to-face with the end product. And like most deals we make with our own desire, this one, too, has gone awry. We are now running the risk of taking our beautiful free ride and damning it to a myopic future.

The fact is, the dream professional surfing has pursued since its inception—worldwide acceptance as a viable mainstream sport—has remained exactly that: a dream. Something we’ve invented and envisioned. Something that, when considered in the klieg light of reality, doesn’t even exist. Surfing will never be the mainstream sport so many have pined for. Never. The whole vision is a phantom concept. Surfing was never meant to be like that. It’s just not in our nature. And, quite often, when we’re forced onto that unnatural stage, the result is humiliating. Surfing becomes like some plug horse with the straw hat, straining for the unobtainable carrot dangled in front of its nose.

The great mainstream experiment has failed. God knows we’ve given it a shot—trying on outfits like a little girl turned loose in mother’s closet: everything from Peter Townend’s 1976 efforts as a jumpsuited, tabletop-dancing Hollywood celebrity, to today’s blasphemous wavepool events. And still the mainstream refuses to recognize a surf contest as another sporting event. (Although it seems they have given that recognition to the accompanying bikini contests.)

Sure, the prizemoney has gone up. But even there, we’ve probably been caught with our pants down. Thanks to our efforts, international ad campaigns extolling the virtuous cool of surfing are making millions for booze, cigarette and clothing conglomerates. Meanwhile, pro surfer Bryce Ellis finds himself standing on a shaky scaffolding at a major professional surfing event in tourist-tacky Seaside Heights, New Jersey, having to chase down his winnings after contest organizers seemingly fled with the money. Gesturing with impotent rage, Bryce asks, “What are we doing here? Is this what we’re all about?”

But money isn’t the real issue, anyway. The real issue is nothing less than the direction of progressive surfing. The truth is, we now have a machine that has taken on the responsibility of providing a forum for the most dynamic surfing in the world, and turned it into something vaguely cruel. Yes, let’s compete. But let’s compete responsibly. Let’s compete in a way that does us—does the sport—proud. The schedule this year is virtually without a break, and the conditions under which our elite surfers are asked to perform are often miserable. Pro surfers have become like kids who have to put on their uncomfortable Sunday shoes once a week and are then ordered outside to play. It’s beginning to wear. A lot of pro surfers are exhausted, disgruntled, bored. Some have dropped out to one degree or another, disturbed at what their lives have become. Even the big events with inflated money and added ratings points are no longer guaranteed to attract all the top names anymore: Tom Curren, Martin Potter and Tom Carroll all recently sat out an AA-rated contest in Brazil.

The world’s most influential surfers should be active and stoked, and inspiring the rest of us. But instead of working within a healthy field, sensitive to creative performance, they have found the host environment to be beating with a carnival heart. For spectators and sponsors it may seem to pulse loud and wondrous, during the week the show is in town. But for those who travel venue-to-venue, the pulse all too often sounds artificial and static: a faltering transplant from the mainstream consciousness—one that is greedy for points and more points, and the questionable glory of the world title.

And what about the rest of us? What of the internal damage being inflicted? How is all of this affecting the spirit of surfing; the values that once seemed timeless; the ideals of escape and cleansing and purification?

What is it all doing to surfing’s soul?

Surfing now finds itself at another crossroads. It is time for us to rediscover there is pride and greatness to be found in our uniqueness. We need to not just accept, but embrace the more feral nature of our eccentric, counterculture, individualistic activity. This is not some package deal to be sold to the throngs. The time come for us to rethink where we’re headed.

Let’s stay faithful to our first and true desires. Let’s strike a new deal.