"There's always going to be some type of controversy in a sport that's judged by people."
That's what six-year World Tour veteran Fred Patacchia had to say towards the latter half of an hour-long conversation about the state of judging on the ASP World Tour, and since former ASP Head Judge Perry Hatchett announced a revision to the Tour's judging criteria for the 2010 season, the new rubric has come under scrutiny. Even the New York Times investigated the system professional surfing uses to measure wave riding, concluding that aerial surfing is the way of the future. But not everyone wants the World Tour to resemble an air show, and biases will continue to threaten objectivity ("I know all the scuttlebutts that go on in the judge's area," says former ASP Judge Craig Hoshide. "I could probably write a book on it.") After all, as Fred says, there's always going to be controversy. Especially in a sport that's judged. Especially by people.
When the 2010 ASP World Tour kicked off by alerting the competitors and media that judges will use five new, major categories during competition, the competitive surf community in some ways expressed relief. It was time for a change, and this change came in the form of five distinct categories: Commitment and Degree of Difficulty, Innovative and Progressive Maneuvers, Combination of Major Maneuvers, Variety of Maneuvers, Speed, and Power and Flow.
That sounds good. It sounds like progress: a solid set of criteria from which to select heat winners, but in a sport where subjectivity rules, is it possible to get a little more concrete?
"Commitment now is the big word on the judging criteria," says former ASP Judge Craig Hoshide, 59, who officiated regional North America contests from the '80s until 2005. "I think they're trying to be as user-friendly to the surfers as they can be with an open mind, because the surfers are the ones who are judging themselves, really. They want to be judged by a panel of their peers, basically, and they want the judges to know how hard it is to do a certain maneuver and whether they took a chance by doing that maneuver. The judges are sitting there with an open mind and definitely open ears, because the surfers themselves have a lot to say."
And some surfers are pleased with the changes.
"Actually, the judging has come a long way, " says Tour sophomore Jordy Smith. "It definitely suits my surfing more, and it's good because it keeps everybody on their toes, you know?"
"I think it's been pretty good," says Owen Wright. "Guys like Taylor Knox are still getting scored for their massive rail turns and I think they should because they are the best guys at that...also we're getting scored for our airs as well."
Some aren't as pleased.
"It's not evolving surfing," says Kolohe Andino. "I just think judges - if they want any advice from me...I don't know how much they care about what I have to say, but they should just look at it and think about what is harder."
"I know in the rulebook nowadays they want to see more progressive surfing," says Fred Patacchia, "but what is progressive surfing? I think that's what the big question is.”
"I know in the rulebook nowadays they want to see more progressive surfing," says Fred Patacchia, who admits that this year has seen some improvements, "but what is progressive surfing? I think that's what the big question is. Is progressive surfing one big air or is it a couple big turns and a big air? I think there's so much more to surfing than flying down the line and looking for that one big section and trying a rodeo flip or some kind of Kerrupt air or something and I think that in order to get a ten or an excellent score like a 9.5 you need to be able to show the judges that you can do it all. I really hope we don't lose the power surfing and I guess the essence of surfing in this whole journey to progress the judging. I would hate to see the tour turn into an air show. "
In addressing Patacchia's concerns, the ASP has made it clear that it has different expectations for different conditions. "For example, the same approach to surfing in classic Trestles conditions will not score the same when applied to classic Pipeline conditions," wrote Perry Hatchett at the beginning of the season. "Classic Trestles conditions call for more Innovative and Progressive Maneuvers whereas classic Pipeline conditions call for more Commitment and Degree of Difficulty.”
While the new criteria seem committed to evolving the sport, surfers continue to explore new ways to evaluate how waves are ridden. Fred Patacchia hypothesizes the merit of a rating system more akin to snowboarding and figure skating, designating individual judges to specific categories.
"One guy is judging your style and flow," says Patacchia. "Another guy is judging the technical maneuvers that you're doing. Another judge is judging say the complete package of the way that you've surfed. And then they'll score that on a scale from one to ten and you add those scores together and that would be your score.
Craig Hoshide developed a metric he calls "The Fairway Format," which is based more on golf's competitive procedures. It eliminates half of the field each round, irrespective of individual heat scores. The highest scores move on, unless conditions change so significantly that continuity in judging scales has been lost. "The Fairway Format will make sure that every competitor has an equal chance of advancing rounds through consistent, radical surfing, not a factor of luck or another competitor "sitting" on you for advancement," says Hoshide. It's a novel concept, and Hoshide once submitted the outline for use on the Women's longboard tour, but it was rejected.
There are a million ways to judge a sport, and it's worth the surf community's collective energy to put all the ideas on the table and consider the options, but, unfortunately, no matter which criteria are selected, judgments will continue to be, inherently, skewed.
"A judge's score is so subjective," says Patacchia. "It's everyone's personal opinion and we're putting basically our careers on the line in someone else's hands - in someone else's opinion. It's a little difficult. You're always going to think maybe there was a little bit of bias towards your competitor, or maybe you got low-balled because you think a judge doesn't like you - especially because it's not like 'I put the ball in the hole after three strokes, and the other guy had four and that's why I beat him.'"
It seems we've discovered that surfing, a sport that requires an ocean and a board, just isn't that simple. Especially when it's judged by people.