Dueling Keyboards Judges

Feels like an ant colony in here.

People are scurrying every which way. They are delivering heat sheets, changing shifts, fixing problems with the webcast, creating problems with the webcast, etc. I'm in the swift-beating heart of a contest scaffolding, taking in the organized chaos. And it's fun — until I get to the judging booth.

The contest I'm witnessing is a great event. And like every great event these days, it's based off of the WSL's contest model. The judging structure is something you're probably familiar with.

A panel of five judges from different regions attach a score from 0-10 to every wave ridden based off of:

-Commitment and degree of difficulty
-Innovative and progressive maneuvers
-Combination of major maneuvers
-Variety of maneuvers
-Speed, power and flow

It's an agreeable criteria. If you had to put good surfing into words, those are the right ones to use. And the five judge thing works, especially because they axe the highest and lowest score and roll with the average of the other three. Good system — but then the head judge comes in and fucks everything up.

In the booth, I see a surfer catch a wave and watch the judges react. A man in a black shirt — the head judge — speaks in a commanding tone. "OK, he did a major turn and had a little bobble, but finished strong. Should be a mid-range score. No better than red's last." The judges then type their scores in and the head judge glances over their shoulders and reviews every single score, sometimes saying something about the wave that leads a judge to change their score. Once he agrees with all of them, he instructs the judges to push send and the score goes live.

In other words, there is one judge masquerading as five.

After watching that, I spoke with an old friend from home who’s judged a few contests on the East Coast. His role sounded less like interpreting the criteria and more like trying to please the head judge so that he could keep his job. "You just try not to be the highest or the lowest score," he said.

That same friend has been climbing up the judging ranks lately. The ascent is pretty simple. Work an event, appease the head judge, make some connections. Get invited to a bigger event, appease another head judge, make more connections. Keep upscaling and repeating, and before you know it you're judging the CT. Apparently my pal has been doing a great job of not having an opinion.

In a 2014 piece for SURFING Magazine, Taylor Paul described an experience strikingly similar to mine — except for him, it was actually at a CT. Taylor observed the head judge commentating the wave, calling out certain things, then reviewing and approving all the scores before instructing the judges to lock them in.

What if a judge disagrees? What if they continually disagree? What if they have a deeply-considered and worthy reason for their side of the disagreement, but that reason doesn’t resonate with the head judge? My best guess is that their interpretation of the criteria would suddenly not matter and they’d be fired.

So I say we kill the head judge. Kill him dead — by dead, obviously, I mean in a judging seat at best or in a managerial role at a Denny’s at worst. Just felt like I should clarify that because I’d prefer to remain off the CIA Watchlist.

Why not simply invest in judges with opinions you can trust on their own? So what if that creates some disparity in the scoring? Surfing is subjective. And I know that the point of competition is to make it objective, but surfing just isn’t surfing without at least a little bit of educated subjectivity.

Let surfing be surfing. Lively, interesting, wild, subjective surfing. Not just one old man’s vision of how the world’s most talented surfers should ride waves.