It’s time for UK universities to take skateboarding seriously

Skateboarding’s inclusive ethos and connection to urban life make it a perfect vehicle for widening participation efforts, says Paul O’Connor

August 13, 2021
Source: istock

Skateboarding’s recent debut on the Olympic stage showcased not just a spectacular sport, but an inclusive and supportive culture.

The genuine camaraderie of the competitors modelled a type of sportsmanship seldom seen in international competition. Thirteen-year-old Sky Brown made the front pages of newspapers across the UK, and further challenged some antiquated ideas about skateboarding, slackers and rebellion.

Its moment in the Olympic spotlight may now be over but it would be a huge mistake to forget about it until Paris in 2024. That’s because skateboarding can be a truly transformative tool for widening participation and student engagement, partly because it transcends class, ethnicity and gender like no other sport.

One reason is that cities, and interaction with the urban environment, are central to skateboard culture. Once skateboarders arrive at university, they are immediately oriented to life beyond the campus and work as ambassadors for the university and higher education in general, engaging with youth at local skateparks who may seldom meet this kind of role model. Student skateboarders enjoy a level of engagement with their city of study that few of their peers do.

But the contribution of skateboarders to urban development goes beyond a prosaic interaction with the local community. The creative culture of skateboarding has been crucial to urban regeneration in many cities, where DIY construction projects, art shows, videography and music have sprung from skateboarding subculture.  

As local high streets wither and become blighted by empty storefronts, skateboarders can help contribute to creative processes that regenerate areas. This has been demonstrated in a seminal piece of research by skater turned university professor Ocean Howell, who identified skateboarders as agents of gentrification. That US phenomenon is unsurprisingly now being seen in the UK where local authorities have begun to invest in skateboarding facilities, with the £14 million Folkestone 51 project – the UK’s first multistorey skate park – due to open this year, in part to help with graduate retention in the Kent town. Universities that cultivate a skateboard culture in their city and campus can keep creative and educated people in the community for the long term.

The sport’s unrealised potential in attracting marginalised or socially disadvantaged students is one issue but skateboarding can also help with the retention of such students, still a key issue at many institutions. That’s because, despite their best efforts, the culture of many universities remains cryptic and challenging for some students, and in some cases even hostile.

Two years ago, skateboarders, academics and activists came together at the Pushing Boarders conference in Malmö to consider the collective good of the sport and culture. One panel that explored the ambivalent relationship many skateboarders have with education and, in particular, higher education. Universities should be explicit that young people don’t need to choose between studies or skateboarding; these are mutually beneficial, even for a career in skateboarding.

One way for universities to be more open and welcoming is to broaden the range of activities available and valued on campus and open up the avenues to contribute.

Sports culture is changing, and it is likely that there will be increasing diversity in the UK’s official competitive student sport circuit, mirroring changes seen at Olympic level. In Australia recognition of elite skateboarders has already seen two full scholarships being awarded by the University of Sydney.

This is a smart move not just to help pave the way for future Olympic competitors and managerial personnel, but to also diversify university and campus culture.  In the US the non-profit College Skateboarding Education Foundation takes things far more seriously by supporting skateboarders with small scholarships or grants to help those in debt. Legitimation of skateboarders and other lifestyle sports practitioners as athletes points to more inclusive campuses where parkour and boardslides are encouraged and not policed as anti-social.

The evidence is clear. Skateboarding is an open activity that is accessible to anyone regardless of their age, gender, sexuality or ethnicity. Non-white skateboarders have long been at the fore in the sport while many have remarked on the wide age range of skaters, from Japan’s 12-year-old silver medallist Kokona Hiraki to 46-year-old South African Olympian Dallas Oberholzer.

Perhaps more evocatively, Leo Baker, a widely respected non-binary professional skateboarder endorsed by Nike, is a playable character in the Tony Hawk Pro Skater video game. Recently skateboarding’s flagship magazine Thrasher even ran a community statement addressing issues of sexual consent in skateboarding.

These are all key issues that universities are struggling to address, and where skateboarding has already blazed a truly inclusive trail.

Paul O’Connor is a lecturer at the Department of Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology at the University of Exeter. He is a lifelong skateboarder and author of the book Skateboarding and Religion.

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