Smack-Talk of the Town

“Shaun White for Target: The Funeral Collection”
by Isa Hopkins, editor-at-large

The Winter Olympics have always been Summer’s kid brother, nerdier and never quite as noticeable.  The Summer Olympics bare sweat and exertion and human flesh in an unceasing two-week parade of triumph and heartbreak but the Winter Olympics seem somehow muffled — too much snow, too much gear, too much figure skating.

That may have changed in 2010, however.  The Vancouver Olympics wrought a certain hip cachet, a confluence of Stephen Colbert, Johnny Weir, and a young man known as the “Flying Tomato” coming together to make playing in the snow cool again.  Colbert and Weir’s appeal is straightforward: Colbert is Colbert, and Johnny Weir skates a routine to Lady Gaga’s “Pokerface”; they’ve left their mark more on popular culture than on sport.  Shaun White is another story.

The fiercely red-headed White, whose ginger mop and whiz-bang aerials have earned him the appellation “Flying Tomato,” is, without a doubt, the greatest snowboarder who has ever yet graced this Earth.  To watch him glide across a half-pipe is to forget that gravity exists, to watch a brash California skater dude subjugate the laws of physics in the name of doing something totally sick, man!  It can be downright disconcerting for the more hidebound among us, leaving viewers to wonder if there is secretly a wire somewhere, as in the movies.

But there is no wire, and this belays another truth of snowboarding and snow sports in general: while all that snow might seem a gentle buffer between the human body and its own mortality, the Winter Olympics are dangerous.  No sprinter or swimmer has yet died in practice sessions at the Summer Olympics, as Russian luger Nodar Kumaritashhvili did this past year in Vancouver.  The Winter Olympics might be smaller in scale, but the scope of their injuries is much broader.

Perhaps it’s this exposure to such tragic injury and death that has led Mr. White to reveal a different side of himself.  In addition to his legendary prowess on the half-pipe, you see, and in spite of a recent Saturday Night Live sketch caricaturing him as a financial flash in the pan, Mr. White is loaded.  He has a lucrative sponsorship from Red Bull, which built him his own training facility, as well as endorsement deals and various lines of skateboarding and snowboarding gear and apparel.  Then, too, there is his most recent cash cow: a line of skater-hip clothing at Target, where each item comes with its own cute sticker to affix to your board, marking any aspiring skater a disciple to the sport’s very own miracle worker.

The Target line has sold well, in large part thanks to Mr. White’s broad appeal.  He is an athletic phenom with an easy smile and without any apparent problems with drinking, drugs, or women; moms are only too happy to have him as their son’s role model, rather than, say, Ben Roethlisberger or, god help us, Plaxico Burress.  But while Mr. White still seems to be avoiding legal entanglements, his line has taken an undeniably darker turn with the debut, this fall, of “Shaun White for Target: the Funeral Collection.”

“It was kinda gnarly,” says Mr. White, who approves all of the designs that bear his name.  “Like, the clothes are supposed to be, like, fun, and cool and stuff, but man, funerals are, like, not fun, you know?  Not fun at all.  So it was like, how do we put those two together?  That was hard.  That was, like, the Double McTwist of making clothes, right?”

One might wonder why Mr. White even bothered.  When pressed, his easy Southern California affability disappears.  His brow furrows, and the half-grin that seems permanently etched onto his face fades.  “You know, it’s like, there’s a lot of times, young people, you go to maybe your grandma’s funeral or something — and it’s really sad, and you wear a suit and everything, and that’s, like, that’s one thing.  But then… it’s like, where it gets really gnarly is like, what if it’s one of your bros, dude?  Like, I heard some statistics and stuff where young guys die, like, a lot more than you think.  It’s so not cool, but it’s like, you don’t treat your bro the same way you treat your grandma, you know?”

Once his skater-slang has been parsed, it’s reasonable to believe that Shaun White might have discerned an entirely new demographic, one which we as a society are still to ashamed to acknowledge: young people who have lost or are mourning another young person.  We tend to regard such incidents as rare and isolated tragedies, treatable with platitudes and maybe some therapy, but “what do I wear to my bro’s funeral?” is a national conversation that’s yet to grace the pages of the New York Times.

“I think it’s wonderful,” says Dr. Jeffrey T. Meltzer, a psychologist who specializes in adolescent grief.  “Kids need to have role models.  Shaun White feels very approachable, very relatable.  The fact that he’s giving these kids permission to grieve in public is a significant step forward.  And very unexpected.  I give him tremendous credit for it.”

It is decidedly unexpected for a young, upbeat athlete to associate himself with something so dour, although it helps that Shaun White is not merely repackaging traditional funerary wear for the youth set; no, like the sport of snowboarding, he has reinvented it altogether.  The plaids in the line are more somber than what the boarders wore in Vancouver, but it is still shocking to see hoodies marketed as funeral-appropriate.  The very pairing of Shaun White and funerals provokes a certain amount of chaos and cognitive dissonance, although no more so than Johnny Weir’s scheduled appearance next month at an annual retreat of the Log Cabin Republicans (readers can rest assured, however, that in the face of such unexpected announcements from her fellow Winter Olympic stars, Lindsey Vonn has pledged to remain hot for the foreseeable future).

“Whoa, man.  That’s, like, pretty heavy, and stuff,” says Mr. White, informed of Dr. Meltzer’s analysis.  “But, you know, right on.”

What prompted the transition?

“Well, it was like, it was actually Red Bull’s idea,” Mr. White admits.  “Because, you know, there were those gnarly stories, with, like, Red Bull and vodka?  And some people died?  So it was, like, corporate synergy and stuff, because then Target sells Red Bull.  I think we’re gonna try to, like, market it all together, you know?  Like, buy a funeral hoodie, get a free Red Bull. It’s gonna be sick, bro.”



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