Fists: Fire and Water
Image by Iván Tamás from Pixabay

What Happens When Punk Rockers and Sports Jocks Meet in the Middle?

When punk rockers and sports jocks meet their clash creates a fusion that causes a different kind of explosion.

Sports are not among the first things one thinks of when the topic of punk comes up; in fact, they may be among the last. A common illustrative anecdote tells the tale of the skinny punk rocker kids being picked on by the burly “sports jocks” that rule the school playground. Essentially antagonistic, these factions’ mutual distaste for each other is cast as the marginal versus the mainstream, the ostracized versus the popular, the rebellious versus the conformists, and the slouching versus the athletic. When one considers the stereotypical punk, the image of a sick-looking scrawny youth comes to mind, likely wearing bondage trousers barely suitable for walking, never mind sporting activity.

Big-time sports, too, have been largely disparaged by political punks, regarded as an opiate, a palliative to keep the masses subservient to the interests of corporate sponsors. If punk is anti-establishment, then surely it must also be anti-sports. Punk band 7 Seconds certainly take that stance in “I Hate Sports” (1982), a song which ironically requires some athletic prowess to perform, its speedy sprint clocking in at 41 seconds in length. “TV sports, they all suck shit!” Kevin Seconds yells, seconding the punk party motion of the era. 

Not all punk has been as virulently anti-sports, though. Within the subcultures of hardcore and straight edge that 7 Seconds operated, certain sports and even sports attire were both accepted and ador(n)ed, less as an endorsement of corporate sports as indicative of a new breed of punks tired of the drunks and druggies in their midst. For them, sports signaled fitness of body and mind for the fights ahead, whether those be ethical, ideological, spiritual, or in the mosh pits and the streets. Even before the emergence of straight edge and its fit and fighting “youth crews”, punk had aligned itself with one sport that satisfied both its essential spirit and sensibility: skateboarding.

As both a subculture and subgenre, skate punk is the sport of punk, particularly of its hardcore, crossover thrash, grindcore, and pop-punk manifestations. Featuring urgent guitar riffs over blast (or just fast) drum beats, these subgenres are tailor-made for skateboarding — and vice versa. Over 40-plus years these punk manifestations have merged and mutated, with skateboarding and its subaltern subculture always hanging on and along for the ride.

Skate punks exhibit a contradictory consciousness. They pursue the individualism and personal freedoms we associate with the American dream, yet self-identify outside that dream, amongst the outcasts, alienated, and socially rejected. They embrace punk’s progressive political consciousness, raging against injustices and oppression, yet can exhibit the worst excesses of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Their roots are largely in the middle-class suburbs of Southern California, yet their primary targets of rebellion are those very settings and what they represent. 

And although skate punks valorize the DIY autonomy of their craft, enjoying its lack of coaches, organization, and institutional restraints, they equally value the teammates that make their world a tight-knit tribe rather than a collection of disparate individuals. As within the broader punk subculture, these individualists form a tighter bond every time someone insults them or tells them that the noise they listen to is not music, or that skateboarding is not a real sport.

The world’s most famous skate punk, Tony Hawk, recalls the coming together of skateboarding and punk, noting their parallel trajectories. “Like skating, punk was raw. It was real. It was energetic,” he says (Doe 220). Hawk remembers the sounds of the Sex Pistols and the Clash piped through the speakers at skate parks, and how he cut up his sticker from the mainstream radio station 91X, making an X sticker to apply to his board. For him and contemporaries like Steve Alba, Tony Alva, Steve Olson, Steve Caballero, and Duane Peters, skateboarding and punk were interconnected—as were skateboarders and punks—by common values and the routine ritual of skating by day and slam dancing by night (Butz 102).      

Many of the musicians supported by early skate punks were skaters, too, such as Keith Morris, the original front-man of Black Flag, from Hermosa Beach. He may have been the first songwriter to perceive the punk ethos in skateboarding — and vice versa — when singing “I was a surfer, I had a skateboard” in his self-deprecating ode to self-destruction, “Wasted” (1979).  Proud rebels, Black Flag captured skate punks’ feelings of being under siege when offering up “Police Story” (1981), an anthem for the subculture. 

Few bands then or since have better encapsulated the spirit of skate punk, their speed, power, and thrill of performing on the edge of control—and the law—on full display in their early shows.  Other peers of that time picked up on and participated in the burgeoning skate punk scene, too, fellow Angelenos the Descendents, Adolescents, and T.S.O.L. all similarly grasping the sport’s cadences, testosterone-fueled speed, and swagger.

Like hardcore punk, skateboarding was an underground phenomenon in the early 1980s.  Official skate parks existed by then, but they were too organized and expensive for the average cash-strapped punks that wanted some danger added to their daring; instead, they preferred to take their boards to wherever “No Skateboarding Allowed” signs were posted. A division soon developed between those mainstream kids content to play in the skate parks and the rogue punks on the streets, a schism exhibited in and exploited by certain magazines that covered the sport. 

Whereas the glossy Skateboarder and Transworld Skateboarding presented the sport in a positive light, putting teen heartthrobs on its covers, Thrasher rebranded it around punk imagery and outlooks. Started in 1981 by punk/skate veteran Fausto Vitello as a zine made by skaters for skaters, Thrasher dropped Stooges puns like “skate and destroy” and called on its readers to resist the corporatization of their sport and to defy ordinances denying public spaces to skaters (Butz 73). Printed in black and white and using scrappy graphics, Vitello promoted skateboarding as part of the broader punk subculture, even incorporating a music section into the magazine. By the ’90s, Thrasher had sponsored and released eight volumes of Skate Rock, too, the contents guiding both skaters and punks in common directions.

Despite there being over 11 million boarders around the world today, the sport gives off only hints of its storied hardcore past. Some veterans have followed the dollar signs, Tony Hawk, for example, still profiting from his video films and games, and Vans, the shoe manufacturer that helped define stake punk style in the ’80s, sponsoring the traveling Warped tours for over a decade (1995-2019). 

The expansion of the scene has brought some social progress as well, with interested parties long excluded or discriminated against now finding space to participate and chart the future.  Self-described punk teacher and artist, Miriam Klein Stahl, for example, is co-owner with skateboarder and comedian, Tara Jepson, of Pave the Way, a company that specializes in LGBTQI deck designs (Mink 361). 

While the union of skateboarding and hardcore punk might not be wholly surprising when one considers their common ethos and covert status — at least in the early ’80s — less comprehensible are the associations punk has had with other, more conventional sports.  Nevertheless, certain factions have had connections to hockey and soccer that are tight and long-standing. Although both of these sports are multi-million dollar enterprises, punks often imagine them otherwise, as outsider activities for working-class people.

Punks and Jocks on Ice

You have heard of punk rock, but what about puck rock? Punks often look at hockey and see fighting, slamming, checking, and gladiatorial acts of self-reliance and survival, concluding, “that’s so punk rock!”  Such fandom is especially common in those areas where the game is most popular, in Canada or the North-East regions of the US. Regional identity has always been a feature of punk tribal pride, so such representin’ is perhaps predictable. 

The Hanson Brothers, a side project of Nomeansno named after three fictional characters in the hockey movie, Slap Shot (George Roy Hill, 1977), represented Canadian hockey for decades before their recent demise in 2016. Their mix of hockey-related lyrical themes set to Ramones-style riffs has become the stuff of novelty legend, particularly north of the US border. 

Vancouver’s D.O.A., besides literally naming a punk genre with the release of Hardcore 81 (1981), also identifies as puck rockers, one of their albums titled Kings of Punk, Hockey and Beer (2009). Lead singer, Joey “Shithead” Keighley, has even put out two volumes of puck rock by other bands on his own Sudden Death Records label. 

South of the border, links abound, too, with 2 Minute Minor representing the Chicago Blackhawks, Two Man Advantage representing the New York Islanders, the Boils representing the Philadelphia Flyers, Anti-Flag representing the Pittsburg Penguins, the Briggs representing the Los Angeles Kings, Pennywise representing the Anaheim Ducks (despite front-man Jim Lindberg supporting the Kings), and Dropkick Murphys and Slapshot representing the Boston Bruins. Slapshot, whose releases include Sudden Death Overtime (1990) and Greatest Hits, Slashes and Crosschecks (2001), add a style component to their stage shows when singer Jack Kelly dons his hockey mask while wielding a hockey stick—both for reasons of protection and affectation.

Style provides another intriguing element of punk-sport cross-identification. Unlike skateboarding, where baggy casuals and Vans footwear fit the athletic needs at hand, mainstream sportswear is used for symbolic purposes within hardcore and straight edge. During its early years, punks set themselves apart from and against the enemy jocks by dressing as different from them as possible in deliberate acts of visual antagonism. This led to those punks wearing some outlandish and physically impractical clothing and accessories. 

Those style eccentricities started to fade with the arrival of hardcore and all but disappeared with straight edge when its clean living punks decided to behave like mean, lean, fighting machines instead of semi-conscious drunks. Leading the way were the ’80s youth crews, with their hoodies and skate shorts uniforms, and Youth of Today, whose singer Ray Cappo was featured on the cover of their Break Down the Walls (1986) album looking clean-cut and chiseled, wearing tracksuit pants and Air Jordans. This “tough guy” sporting image took hold, such that today it is common to see straight edgers wearing sports attire, with companies like Violent Gentlemen Hockey Apparel and Everlast catering to them.

In the UK, at the end of the ’70s, hardcore’s equivalent emerged in the form of oi!, a street subgenre centered around the East End of London. More working class and less arty than their (post-)punk peers, many oi! fans and bands spent their extra-curricular leisure hours on the terraces of local soccer clubs like Millwall and West Ham United. Often these tribal identities would bleed into musical ones, most famously in the chant of “United!” that brings Sham 69’s “If the Kids are United” (1978) ur-oi! anthem to a close. Contemporaries like the Cockney Rejects and the Business declared similar loyalties to West Ham, whether by wearing the team’s shirts and scarves on stage or by custom-crafting songs for the fans in their “manor”.

One the Business number, “Guinness Boys” (2001), has reached far beyond its spawning grounds, ending up as a sing-along song of choice for fans of L.A.’s soccer team, The Galaxy.  Because the sport has long been an underdog in the US, dismissed as foreign—and thus inferior—by the nation’s more meat-headed sports fans, its punks have often romanticized soccer (“football” everywhere else in the world) as an “indie” outsider game, despite its corporate backing displayed on every jersey. 

Lars Frederiksen and Branden Steinecker from Rancid are as romantic about their favorite teams (San Jose Earthquakes and Real Salt Lake, respectively) as they are about punk rock, perceiving in both a working-class identity and the collective warmth of regional pride and tribal belonging (Meyer, Taran). That San Jose happens to be next door to Silicon Valley does not dim the vision Frederickson has of his team, and his recent tribute song, “Never Say Die” (2014), recorded by his splinter band, the Old Firm Casuals, even includes this Cali Anglophile giving a hat-tip to his heroes in the Business, referencing their football anthem “Saturday’s Heroes” (1985) with the line, “We’re gonna be Saturday’s heroes.”

Not many of the hardcore and oi! bands sporting hockey and soccer shirts participated in these sports, at least not to the degrees some skate punk musicians have, but their connections run along the lines of subcultural identity and (imagined) ethos all the same. A few even align with sports that have little to do with punk culture. Pure regionalism (and a sense of humor) can be the only explanation for the existence of Geoffrey Oi!cott from Yorkshire, home county to the legendary cricket player, Geoffrey Boycott, from whom the band punned their name. Their cricket-themed punk songs, such as “(Cricket) Bat Out of Hell” (2011), “The Umpire Strikes Back” (2011), and “Pictures of Lillee” (2011), may have little appeal beyond the region—as well as make little sense—but the band further illustrates the many mysterious meanderings of the punk virus. As reporter at the wicket Louis Patterson observes, “Were he alive today, Charles Darwin might have a thing or two to say about punk rock’s impressive adaptability.”


Works Cited

Butz, Konstantin. Grinding California: Culture and Corporeality in American Skate Punk. Verlag. 2012.

Doe, John, and DeSavia, Tom. More Fun in the New World: The Unmaking and Legacy of LA Punk. Da Capo Press. 2019.

Mink, John, ed. Teaching Resistance: Radicals, Revolutionaries, and Cultural Subversives in the Classroom. PM Press. 2019.

Myer, Taran. “Rancid: At the Intersection of Punk and Soccer Cultures”. RSL.com. 25 August 2009.

Patterson, Louis. “Scene and heard: Hockey rock”. The Guardian. 16 November 2009.

PopMatters