Some, like Dr. Vincent Di Maio, an award-winning forensic expert and media stalwart hired by the Irons family, believe that drugs did not contribute to Irons’ death. Others, like the numerous doctors anecdotally consulted for this piece, side with the Medical examiners in Tarrant County citing the myriad and well-documented ways that prolonged drug use can debilitate the heart. In life, Irons’ rock star combination of savant surfing and personal brashness polarized the surfing community like few other public figures, so it is grimly fitting that his death should do the same.
The premature death of a famous and monetarily influential person is always a tragedy, but never just a tragedy. It is many things to many people: a PR nightmare, the scoop of a lifetime, an inconvenience for a tour that seeks legitimacy, the instant canonization of his legend, a damning comment on celebrity culture, a cautionary tale, the tragic loss of a father, brother, husband and son, an ode to self destruction, an episode better left forgotten, an opportunity to change.
What makes Irons unique is not that he self destructed; it’s that he did so in full view of his sponsors, the media, and his fans – while he was still one of the best surfers in the world. His story presents an interesting study in the way the surfing world, and action sports cultures in general, function as they mature into full-blown consumer industries.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of the way Irons’ death has been officially handled is the pregnant silence and, in some cases, apparent misdirection that has come from those in a position to clarify incongruous facts and events surrounding his death. A Billabong Executive declined to comment on the record for this story, and the day Irons was discovered dead in a Texas hotel room, Billabong’s Director of Media (who may have been acting independently on behalf of the family – it was unclear at time of reporting) distributed the following press release, titled “3-Time World Champ Andy Irons Dead From Deng (sic) Fever” to journalists involved in the surf world:
HONOLULU – (November 2, 2010) — The world of surfing mourns an incredibly sad loss today with the news that Hawaii’s Andy Irons has died. Andy was a beloved husband, and a true champion. Irons, 32, withdrew from a professional surfing event in Puerto Rico last weekend due to illness and passed away during a layover en-route to his home in Kauai, Hawaii. He had reportedly been battling with dengue fever, a viral disease. At this time the family thanks his friends and fans for their support, and asks that the community respect its privacy. The family also asks to not be contacted so their focus can remain on one another during this time of profound loss.Media outlets diffused the Dengue fever hypothesis until Brad Melekian published his now-famous article in Outside Magazine "Andy Irons Last Drop by Brad Melekian" stating that Irons was apparently well enough to stop in Miami and party with friends. The toxicology report rules out Dengue entirely. It is still unclear who, if anyone, diagnosed Irons in Puerto Rico. Billabong Media representatives have not responded to repeated interview requests, and in December ASP officials refused to pass along contact details for the medical staff that allegedly diagnosed the disease.
A few weeks before the toxicology report was released to the media, I interviewed ex-pro surfer Christian Fletcher whose career, like Irons’ was marked by equal parts brilliance and self-destruction. His take is unequivocal: “Let’s say it comes out that he did have this drug or that drug in his system. If that is the case, they really did try to do a big cover up,” he says.
He then pauses and asks rhetorically: “What the fuck were they lying for? You can create a positive from such a shitty thing happening. If you have a problem like that and you came out and released a statement about it, there wouldn’t have to be people like you calling people like me to get dirt on the situation.”
“We aren’t a tabloid culture in surf trying to destroy each other on top of bad things that are happening,” King offers unprompted. “I do not know exactly why Andy died other than there was no one with him on that flight home…but no one was ever trying to market or capitalize on his problems.”
The sense of camaraderie King alludes to has long characterized the way surfers conduct business. Irons’ problems with substance abuse were never directly addressed in print, both for business considerations, and because surfing magazine editors appeared (and appear) to have a genuine concern for his public image. He was described as a “partier” and his break from the ASP World Tour was framed by media outlets as a loss of the will to compete, as seen in two separate interviews on Surfline in 2008 and 2009. At one point in the interviews, Irons himself denies the “partying,” saying: “Nope. It’s easy to place the blame on drinking and partying, but honestly, 12 years (on tour) is the reason why, and that is it. Go ahead and replace the word ‘partying’ in Transworld’s quote with ‘repetition,’ and you got yourself a quote we can work with.”
The Surfline interviews reflect an essential truth about the surf media: Its traditional role is not as much to inform the reader as it is to give Irons a platform to speak his piece. Such acquiescence is common in all celebrity driven cultures – ie: music, show business, mainstream sports, etc… – but in surfing, members of the greater industry still have a high degree of interaction with their stars. If they felt they were protecting Irons’ image, they were also protecting their own.
“What surprises me, is that it isn’t just the surfers doing drugs, it’s the reps, the filmers, the team managers…you name it,” an industry insider told told me at the Rip Curl Pro Search in Puerto Rico . “A lot of times they are the ones scoring it for the surfers. I was at an event in California and every other person was coming up to me asking if I wanted to do a line in the bathroom.”
According to photographer and friend of Irons, Art Brewer, the surf industry is unique not because of the presence of drugs, but because it is in the precarious process of distancing itself from a stereotypical drugged-out image. “None of us are saints, but no one wants to talk about it,” he says. “It would be a black eye to the industry. Being a pro surfer now is like being a rock musician back in the day. Drugs are so accessible when you are in that scene. But I wouldn’t say it’s the company guys who are giving drugs to their riders. They know it’s happening, but they’re not acknowledging it, or maybe they don’t know how to handle it.”
The facilitators, according to Brewer, are the mid-range players, the people who “aren’t the stars, but want to be cool and look good in those people’s eyes.”
According to Brewer, the media’s sidestepping around Irons’ addiction problems was a result of the advertising dollars that come from the large surfing companies keeping those magazines alive. “The only reason I talk about it is because I think it’s a joke how the industry is run – it’s a whole little clique, like a mafia, and it’s becoming cheaper and cheaper,” he says.
During his illustrious career, Irons was a bona fide marketing coup. The brashness of both his surfing and personality made him the consummate foil for the cool, sometimes robotic professionalism of Kelly Slater. Irons was the Andre Agassi to Slater’s Pete Sampras, and Brewer admits that he was initially drawn to the concept of rebellious savant. “Part of the reason I got into surf photography was that I was attracted to the characters you could meet, especially the bad boys like (Miki) Dora or Andy. But when someone dies from it, the game is no longer any fun.”
“Temptation,” says agent and former pro surfer, Johnn Shimooka, whose company, Consolidated Sports, represents elite pro surfers like Jordy Smith, Laura Enever, and Michel Bourez. “Everyone wants a piece of you. Whether you are fifty in the world and have a huge domestic following or you’re a world champ. These days there is so much on the line, so much money and prestige.”
Does it go to surfers’ heads? “Sure,” he says, not referring specifically to Irons, but to the young surfers he has dealt with both as an agent and through managing Quiksilver’s Young Guns program. “All young surfers are prima donnas. I know I was. There is a lot of pressure on these kids, and they run the very real danger of burning out from being exposed to too much, too soon. It’s up to the individual athlete to have a support group around them that is honest and open and will bring them back down to earth when they get too big for their britches.”
“If I had a son or a daughter who was in that whole [sponsorship] program…” Brewer begins, then falters. “…It’s virtually unchaperoned. Maybe they need team managers to watch over the kids or participate in their lives a little more. It’s got to be someone they respect.”
In different interviews, industry workers described team managers as everything from “glorified babysitters,” to “frustrated, ex-pro surfers,” to “some of the toughest, most underpaid and most underrated people in pro surfing.”
That last one came from Shimooka, though he agrees that babysitting is part of the job. “You end up being the first line of emotional support for a lot of these kids, and if you commit to looking out for them, well, you had better look out for them.”
I ask him how far that statement extends – these are, after all, other people’s children. “I like to say: ‘You’re never bigger than the game,’” says Shimooka. “What I mean is, unless you’re Kelly Slater, to me you have to wipe your own ass. I will help you to the best of my ability, but you have to draw the line somewhere or surfers will and can take advantage of a team manager to the point where it becomes a joke.”
Shimooka declined to comment directly on Irons, but my overarching question was: if sponsors play such a large role in a surfer’s support network, did Billabong have a responsibility to help Irons, effectively just an employee of their company, albeit an important one, get clean?
Fletcher believes that Billabong was looking out for Irons. “Would you put a bunch of money into something without putting a good security system on it, then keeping an eye on it?” he asks, rhetorically. But Fletcher was simultaneously dismissive of managers’ ability to influence surfers’ habits' ;especially as related to his own troubled career. “Wow, like that’s going to make an impact. A lot of people told me I was fucking up, but they were full blown drug addicts themselves.”
Fletcher was a pro surfer in a very different era, and he isn’t implying that the surfing industry is overflowing with drug addicts. It is not, however, by his or anyone else interviewed for this article’s estimations, an easy place to get clean.
Another industry insider I met at the Rip Curl Pro Search in Puerto Rico mentioned a surfer who was particularly distraught about Irons’ death because they had helped each other “stay on the wagon” in the past: “I hope this makes some of the other guys on tour wake up and re-evaluate their lives a bit,” he said.
Many people I’ve spoken with on and off the record show flashes of survivors’ guilt, perhaps best explained by Brewer’s age-old surfing cliché “none of us are saints.” Fletcher, on the other hand, rejects the idea of recriminations. “Kids in the surf industry need to be looked out for. They are young and dumb and have no coping skills, and they are surrounded by Yes Men giving them massive egos. But at some point you need to take responsibility for yourself. I’m forty years old, and I’ve had a lot of friends die recently. People try to place blame everywhere when people overdose. The way I look at it is: how old is the guy? And when is he going to become responsible for his own actions?”
But even Fletcher softens slightly and takes on a semi-philosophical tone when asked about the difficulties of being a pro surfer. “From the outside looking in, it’s the best job in the world. But making money can take the passion out of it. Not for everyone, but for me it did. If you are expecting to be paid, there are obligations you have to fulfill. Whether that is a wave pool in Arizona or talking to a guy in a bar who is drunk and bugging the shit out of you. Sometimes it takes a lot of fucking work.”
Shimooka agrees. “Pro surfers spend a lot of time away from the comforts of home – their friends, their girlfriends, even little things like their own pillows. The road gets lonely. You are out there on your own, against the world, and the world is a very big place. Sure, if you are on a roll, everyone wants to know you, but when you can’t get results it’s easy to fall off track. I encourage you to try and be a pro athlete. It ain’t easy. Even the best surfers in the world get lonely, even multiple [time] world champions.”
“Andy was too important to the industry,” says Brewer. “He was a hero, and that’s how they wanted him to go out. Dengue fever? Yea, right. One in a fucking million die of Dengue.”
I ask him if official revelations of drug use will diminish his legacy. “No, not at all. He’s like Jimi Hendrix. He was already great, and now that he’s gone it just carries on that mystique. It’s almost like a marketing tool.”
Additional reporting contributed by Zach Weisberg.
source: The Inertia