Tony Hawk: Beyond the Skateboard

By Dean Watkins

This past week Hawk joined the likes of the San Francisco 49ers Foundation and the LA84 Foundation (which funds youth sports projects in Los Angeles, inspired by the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984) as recipients of the Steve Patterson Award, which celebrates and promotes those in the sports world who are improving lives by leveraging the unique influence of sports. The class of 2013 winners join an elite list of past honorees who are unwavering in their commitment to give back to their communities. It is bestowed by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

We caught up with Tony to talk skating, education, and Mike Tyson. Below, our conversation.

So what is the tie between Tony Hawk and philanthropy?

The Tony Hawk Foundation is the ONLY national organization focused solely on empowering at-risk youth and improving disadvantaged communities through the development of public skateboard parks. The foundation’s work has been a driving force in overcoming negative stereotypes associated with the sport in which youth skateboarders are at times banned, fined and criminalized for practicing the sport they love. Since 2002, THF has implemented youth development and leadership training, resulting in the creation of 537 public skate parks in all 50 states. These skate parks collectively service more than 4.6 million youth annually and represent $91 million in leveraged parks-and-recreation community improvements across the United States.

When you were a kid did you ever stand back and think “Some day I’m going to be a business mogul who can impact lives?”

No because this was all unchartered territory when I was young. There were no role models or business examples of people who had lived the skateboarding life and gone on to do other things. We had to cut the course ourselves, take advantage of the opportunities and now use the opportunities for a new global generation of young people who love our sport and all that goes with it.

Skateboarding is big business in many places, what does the foundation seek to achieve?

When we heard that cities were building skateboard parks we were very excited, especially in the inner cities. Then we would go visit and see many were in affluent areas and the parks were terrible. They were dangerous and were worse for kids than skating in shopping malls and parking lots were kids were getting chased out of. We knew we had to do something, so we took it on ourselves to create the foundation and out forth the money to build safe, creative and useful parks, and thus far it’s working very well.

What do you expect young people to get out of the process?

Well we are empowering young people through the foundation to get the parks built in their cities. We give them the tools not to help get the parks built, but to take pride in the work once the parks are completed. What we have seen is that this process teaches these kids great life lessons…they keep the parks clean, they understand the challenges that go into the work to build, they have to work with the community and they learn responsibility. Those skills go well beyond skateboarding, and they help grow these kids in every possible way.

Does that work translate into classroom success?

I think it does for sure. They learn about business, about discipline, about creativity and responsibility. That makes them better citizens and better students, and that’s what we aim to achieve every time, that these kids can channel their passion in the skateboard park and be proactive and positive influences on the community.

You have obviously had a business that transcends just skateboarding, into apparel, licensing and video games. Ever worry that the video game aspect gets too big and can pull kids away from being active physically?

Actually what we have seen is just the opposite. The games we have created are very active, and now with all the elements of live gaming kids participate even more in not just sitting around but being part of the game experience. That has made the introduction to being out on the skateboard much easier, they learn lots of the nuances no matter where they are, and when they are ready going out is a much smoother transition. I have had many of the best skateboarded in the world tell me they were inspired by video games first, and that tells me we are on the right track in creating compelling and engaging games that lead to more kids being physically active.

Of all the people you have met, who was the biggest surprise fan?

Easily Mike Tyson. I was in Las Vegas and hear this voice and he introduced himself to me and immediately went into his video game stance. He told me how much he loved the games and my work, so that was pretty inspiring.

We live in a global sporting world now, where do you think your business will go?

We are already seeing what will be more accessibility to skateboarding and more opportunities for young people around the world who want to engage in a sport which has no language boundaries. The digital world has given access to skateboarding to kids around the world, and we have seen an explosion of interest and participation in places like Afghanistan, Cambodia, Africa, all emerging areas. That tells us that we are having an impact and we think it will get bigger and hopefully the foundation can help with building safe and inspiring parks around the world for years to come. It is very gratifying, and something which I never would have thought possible.

[Photo via Getty]