One year ago, a heavily concussed Owen Wright snuck down to Snapper to watch his sister, Tyler, win the Roxy Pro. It was an emotional moment. For Tyler, it was the first step toward an eventual 2016 world title. For Owen, it must’ve felt strange, like he was watching the life he used to live. Fast-forward a year, and Owen is the 2017 Snapper champ. It’s the feel-good story of surf. But his win didn’t come without controversy. The scoring at the start of 2017 is a hot-topic right now, even more than usual. Was Owen pushed? Should John have beaten Wilko in the first semi? Do the judges love backhand repetition? Everyone has a different opinion, including editor Todd Prodanovich and field editor Zander Morton, so they took the debate to G-Chat to discuss, and tried to find some common ground.
Todd: I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a tough time estimating scores at Snapper over the last few years. If it’s a goofy vs. a goofy, or regular vs. regular heat, it’s fine, but as soon as you start mixing the two, the scoring gets into Loony Tunes territory for me. I mean, I understand that it’s a limiting wave to surf on your backhand, but it seems like the judges aren’t just correcting a handicap. They’re turning the backside snap into the holy grail of performance surfing. And last time I checked, people are doing way more impressive maneuvers on surfboards than backhand hooks. Am I taking crazy pills, or what?
Zander: Well, there’s definitely a lot of rhetoric out there right now about how bad the scoring was at Snapper. And while judging is always going to come under scrutiny, it feels like the first event of 2017 made more people angry than usual. But let’s get into the nitty gritty. What was the most controversial heat of the event, in your opinion?
T: I think it would have to be Mick vs. Owen in Round Three, although Kelly vs. Gabriel in the quarters and John John vs. Wilko in the semi wouldn’t be far behind. For Mick and Owen’s heat, just watch Owen’s 8.10 and Mick’s 7.17 back to back and tell me with a straight face Mick didn’t deserve more for that wave. His carve to snap to E-brake stall for the tube was one of my favorite combos of the event. It felt really adaptive and spontaneous, and I think that’s the gas that gets our engines going as surf fans—spontaneity. Judges might dream about technically-sound backhand snaps on repeat every night, but the variety is really where it’s at. Are you a lover of backhand snaps, Zander?
Z: My backhand snap is definitely my bread and butter. (I never really figured out a proper frontside bottom turn.) So maybe I am a little backhand biased. But, while you make a good point that Mick’s controversial 7.17 was beautifully surfed and possibly underscored, it was very, very close. Like 0.10, skin-of-your-teeth close, and that’s how that heat shook out, but in Owen’s favor. At Snapper, they told everyone on Tour they were scoring a variety of moves over mid-section, chest-high tubes, no matter how pretty. So in the case of Mick vs Owen, they got it exactly right. They scored what they said they were going to. And let’s face it: it’s not like Mick was pushing the performance boundaries in that heat, either.
T: True. If Mick had somehow fit a full rotation before that tube, something tells me we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But still, even with the judges’ outlined criteria, I saw more variation in Mick’s surfing than Owen’s in that heat. So I guess it’s time we address the elephant in the room, right? A lot of people think the judges are pushing the surfer with the most interesting storyline, and I’m not gonna beat around the bush here, I’m one of those people. I don’t think it makes a huge impact, but I think it’s akin to what it was like for lesser-known surfers to come up against Slater a few years ago: The Champ was always gonna get the benefit of the doubt in a tight heat. I think the same is true now, but it applies to whoever has the interesting narrative behind them. Or am I just a Kool-Aid drinking conspiracy theorist?
Z: What, and you think 9-11 was an inside job, too? OK, so I see your point. Judges are people, too. With real emotions! And the Owen narrative is one that is hard not to get behind. But do I think they pushed him? Absolutely not. I think everyone needs to take a step back and a deep breath and actually consider what the judges go through. Surfers are often riding waves at the same time. Judges are comparing a goofy vs regular approach. They’re dissecting form and style (even though it’s not technically in the criteria). And it’s all happening really fast. So at the end of the day (or heat), what it comes down to is this: did the right surfer win? Ask me that question and I’ll say yes, 95% of the time, regardless of the individual numbers. And it just so happens that Owen Wright was that right surfer at Snapper. Do you disagree? Oh, and let me add this: so many people are armchair quarterback judges and complain about scores based off the heat analyzer. But the heat analyzer shows you way less than what you see live, and what you see live shows you wayyyy less than what you see live AND in person. So, the only people who can really criticize are those who were at the event, and saw exactly what the judges saw. And even then, who is to say that person’s opinion holds more weight than the actual panel of professionals? Think about what happens when you give all the Social Media / Internet trolls a voice. They do dumb shit like elect Donald Trump as President. And we don’t want that, right, Todd?
T: For starters, no, I don’t want that, if “that” is empowered trolls and a Trump presidency, but I think we’re getting off-topic. On your point about Owen being the right surfer to win the event, my feelings are a bit complicated. If I say I don’t think he deserved to win, I’m sure every warm-blooded surf fan on earth will be storming my office with sharpened pitchforks tomorrow, because let’s face it, this is one of the greatest comeback stories surfing has ever seen. Hell, I might even have to kick my own ass for tainting that feel-good ending. I also wanted Owen to win, but that doesn’t change the fact that the scoring seemed questionable to me. It’s like when Mason Ho lost to Adriano at Pipe two years ago, which lost Mick the title—I wanted the judges to gift Mason the score, somehow, for anything, because Mick had run that insane cosmic gauntlet of a year like a champion, and it felt like he deserved it. But that doesn’t mean that the judges would have been justified in pushing Mason, and it would have felt like an empty victory if they did. Buying into those storylines and getting worked up as fans is part of why sports can be so goddamn enthralling, but if it starts to feel like the playing field isn’t level, it kind of takes the electricity out of the room. That’s why the judges have to hold themselves to a higher standard than we hold ourselves, because if they let great stories alter their ability to objectively judge a performance, then what are we left with? Some entertaining surfing, sure, but not much of a sport.
Z: Aha! So you answered your own question. If the judges truly are pushing the feel-good sports narrative all the time, Mick would have won the world title in 2015, right? Remember, the judging panel has remained pretty much unchanged since then. So, why push Owen and not Mick? The answer: because they aren’t pushing anyone. To me, the more important question is this: does our sport have a problem with judging? Was Snapper especially bad? Because there are a lot of folks saying we have an issue with the way surfing is scored, yet nobody is really offering a solution. Ex-pro surfers as judges? Sorry, but I don’t buy it. I don’t believe you need to be a ‘CT-level surfer to be a ‘CT judge. I once heard Ben Dunn, a former ‘CTer, get in a heated debate with Jeremy Saukel, not a former ‘CTer but definitely a really good surfer, about they way they individually scored an air Griffin Colapinto did in Cabo on the ‘QS. And I also listened to Leo Fioravanti make bets against Kelly Slater in the competitors’ area at J-Bay last year, and they were often a point or so off on how they scored one wave versus another. And that’s two of the best surfers in the world with two different opinions on the other best surfers in the world. Now, I’m not saying judging is perfect. And I don’ t think it ever will be. But I do believe there is a small change that would make a difference, and I’m not the first one to bring it up. Kill the head judge (Not literally. I’m sure Richie Porta is a great guy). But figuratively, let’s just kill him, because I do not think the head judge should be able to influence scores. I think a system where 5 people do their best to individually judge a wave in silence, and then they drop the high and low and average the rest is as close as you can get to scoring a sport with so many extreme intricacies and a constantly changing medium. Even if that means the scorecard from judge to judge is a bit less consistent. I’ll take a 7, 8.5, 9, 7, and 7.5 over five consistent 8s and 8.3s. Because scoring is subjective and subjectivity is inherently inconsistent. You said it: like it or not, surfing is a sport. But how do we objectively judge it? The system isn’t broken. It just needs a little tune-up.
[Featured Image: Sherman; Title Photo: Joli]