Mat Hoffman: The Day I Became Big Time
This piece was originally written by Mat in 1999.
I was asked by Fortune magazine why our industry is so scared of the word “CORPORATE.” The man went on to say that corporate is a good word in many other worlds, and besides that, why do the same athletes that resent the word “corporate” do so at events put on buy other corporations, the logos they wear on their clothes are corporate and the money they accept at the events they spite is corporate? Isn’t this hypocritical? What is it with the word corporate that makes people uncomfortable and what does corporate mean to you?
The first thing out of my mouth was, “Fortune the magazine is asking me what corporate means? Does this mean I’ve hit the big time?” He didn’t really know how to respond and said he only interviews the “Big Time.” Hmmm, alright. It was kind of like ESPN asking me what they should put on TV. Weird they do that too. Times they are a changing.
Okay then, what’s corporate mean to me? What a great question! This is one of the questions of my life, now I’m telling Fortune magazine what “corporate” means to me. So this is what I sent them:
A corporation is a social and economic structure that is put in place to take raw creative energy and translate it into the international language of commerce. See, you can be the most talented artist and have many messages you would like to share with the world, but without structure or a platform to relay these insights, you may go unheard. In most cases, a corporation can provide this. I personally structure my corporation by providing creative outlets to stimulate the creativity of the artists who work with me, and like fuel to an engine, my corporate structure takes this creative energy and translates it so it can be heard. Despite the paradox of its name, a corporation is not a bad thing. It’s one with a bad rep, but to most of the people I live around being on a corporate level or referring to your corporation is like referring to an entity with no soul and no moral values with one objective and that is to make money. I believe the legal system gave people this understanding of corporate. Why I say that is because the time most corporations lose their family values and nobody takes accountability for its actions is when it’s done something wrong, something illegal, something human. When it has made a mistake. The law protects the owners, directors and decision makers through the legal shield that incorporating provides them. Now everything good you can take credit for and everything bad you can blame on your corporation. Thus, the bad rep corporate has been given. As far as the animosity that most athletes have toward it, I would have to say there are a few reasons.
1. They simply don’t understand it and to understand it means to compromise. You’re right, they don’t mind riding on the green corporate coat to project their message to the masses, but not understanding it gives them security that they won’t become it. I personally think differently. By understanding it, I define my own meaning of corporate.
2. I also think there is an unwritten rule that you’re not allowed to make money off your art or you will tarnish the purity that created it in the first place. Again, I disagree with this theory. Yes, money is accused as being the root of all evil, and it can be, but only because of us. It makes some of us do stupid things because we want it so bad. Some things that may change your original goal or vision, losing the purpose of why you started in the first place, but it doesn’t have to be this way. You just have to not let it over power you. Yes, making money from your art can be a double edged sword if money is more valuable to you than your art. Like my dad told me, “If you want something on your terms you have to want it enough to be willing to walk away from it.” If you’re strong enough and believe enough in the value of your art then you may be able to have your cake and eat it too. It’s hard, everyone wants money, but what is money without purpose? It’s a balance you define.
3. One of the most obvious reasons is our past. BMX just came out of a recession a little over five years ago, but how did we get there in the first place? Some may say it’s just the way the market works, “We’re on a ten year cycle and it just came back around.” I say it's because we had no foundation. We were just pawns in a game we created with no control over the corporate structure. Fifteen years ago our corporate structure was designed and assembled by jackass promoters that had no other reason to be involved in our sport other than to fill their pockets. Why were we so susceptible to this type of corporate virus? Because we didn’t want to step up to the corporate world and implement our own corporate system to translate our sport and our energy to the masses accurately and purely. Instead, because we didn’t want to compromise, we compromised our entire sport by leaving it up to complete laymen outsiders to implement their corporate structure to interpret their perspective of us to the masses. We could have controlled our own destiny, but we failed to accept the responsibilities that come with success. We were scared of the word corporate because of the people that defined it before us.
4. Maybe one of the biggest reasons is the fear of being called a sellout. Being accused of this basically bastardizes all your effort to try and make a difference by being labeled a conformist. Well, there is a big difference between being a sellout and everybody else just buying in. For instance, it drives me crazy when I hear people call the top riders of today sellouts. They are doing the same thing they have been doing and that was inspired by their personal quest to challenge their mind, body and soul in an original and unique way. Now, because of the consumer's need for change, they have leached onto this different sport. The sport these athletes chose and continue to focus their creative energy into. And because all these people are now buying into their world, they have been called a sellout by some. The ironic part is that the same people that jump at the chance to yell sellout are the same ones that are buying in.
All industries are built for money and most industries come from a single vision. They’re either built by the people who share the vision or by the people that recognized the vision as a commodity. But success is success and I’ve seen it grow with or without the original vision. And with success comes strategic alliances that bring different cultures into one industry. The battle is juggling the different perspectives, wearing different hats and understanding and accepting that there are other cultures that obey an entire different book of ethics. Ones that sometimes clash with ours, but in their own stubborn ways are much like ours. I thrive in finding similarities in other cultures. I sometimes think that by creating our own subculture to expand our minds we have sheltered ourselves from growing and learning from our surroundings by dismissing them because they aren’t “one of us.”
On a corporate level we do the same. For example, I was running a contest for a major corporation and during the street contest one of the riders saw a unique line nobody else had thought of. The line consisted of jumping over a fence out of the contest area into the management area. Well, as he was setting up for it the management freaked out, but the rider, having dealt with people not understanding his actions, jumped in spite of having to dodge the security and management. Instantly, I found myself in the thick of the security and management yelling at me, red in the face, asking why I’m not disqualifying him. They were saying things like, “Don’t you know that that is not tolerated? The insurance only covers riders in the fenced off area and if someone was hurt, the whole event could be shut down.”
As other people from the corporation flocked to me in the disarray, not understanding how I could smile at such an obvious “no-no” in their world, I had to say, “This rider comes from a different environment than yours, an environment so interesting that you have tried to re-create it, mind you, for your audience that is fascinated by it. Though you made a vigilante out of this rider, he was doing nothing different than what he would have done in his natural environment. The whole essence of street riding is to search out hard to find lines and create something out of nothing, to make something out of what something others don’t see. This is what this rider was doing. And though I know your side and it was not kosher in this simulated environment, he doesn’t. Besides, what kind of message does it send if you’re saying how bad it is and the cameramen are setting up for the shot?”
I went on to ask if they ever tried to rationally communicate to the athlete the reasons why this can’t be done in this corporate structure they have tried to disguise before they grabbed him forcefully and made a scene. They didn’t understand. And that’s just my point, there needs to be understanding between this new alliance of subculture, used to be underground sports, and mainstream America. An understanding of corporate America and corporate America’s understanding of us. Better yet, ultimately we need to rise above by learning the business and creating our own corporations that control and direct our own visions. Being our own internally owned industry… a pipe dream? Maybe, but I hope to see us step up to this level more and more in the future sharing our own definition of corporate. Until then, we are going to have to continue to associate with “strategic alliances” to fill the voids we aren’t. Until we can fill all these voids, which I personally think is a never ending battle, we have to take the role of understanding and communicating on a corporate level our visions and directions. I recognize this and have taken the stance as the liaison between our industries and the artists (the athletes) since I have experience and constantly juggle both everyday.
Obviously, I believe to keep an industry successful, fresh and cutting edge, the artist should always be the one to direct it. But without a liaison to create an understanding, the industry will go on guessing what direction to go while the artist’s valuable directions are left misunderstood and ignored and without the original fuel it’s going to burn out. This is why the artist always gets the short end of the stick. They pass the buck, so to speak. They lose control over their success at the corporate level, at the level it’s translated into a commodity and exploited, one of the more important places for them to be present. Again, without them, their visions will continue, but without their guidance. It will not be their translation anymore, but someone else’s. So, by us being scared of being corporate and denying the responsibility success poses, we keep fueling the misrepresentation of us by outside corporations. Is it their fault or ours? If we wanted to go back to the underground we could, but the corporate world is still going to exist and I don’t mind trying to teach them another definition of corporate as long as they are asking. I’m not scared and I know both sides. I chose the side with the best view where I can see everything close up. The inside.
The rider Mat's talking about that jumps out of the course is none other than James Menard Levan, who at different points in his riding career raced in the semi-pro ranks and had a Huffy signature complete bike model instead of delivering pizzas at Papa John's for rent and bills. The clip can be seen in Props Best of '98 below.