Jay Adams, a guy who had really good balance on his skateboard and, as a member of the Z-Boys, helped to define skating as we know it, died from a heart attack on Thursday while vacationing in Mexico. Although he lived most of his life outside the spotlight, he was brought into mainstream consciousness in 2001 thanks to the documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, and then again in 2005, when he was portrayed by Emile Hirsch in Lords of Dogtown. Adams's death was picked up by most major news outlets, almost all of which used the words "legend" or "legendary" in their headlines and went on to describe him as a bad boy who pushed the sport away from dance-y, ballerina-style contests and into the more aggressive street and pool skating that birthed modern-day skateboarding. Less discussed was the gay-bashing Adams initiated in Los Angeles that left a man dead.
While I appreciate Adams's contribution to skateboarding as much as the next guy, it seems odd that virtually every obituary published over the last four days has glossed over or completely failed to mention that one time in 1982 when he helped kill a guy. Adams, describing the incident to Juice magazine in 2000, said, "After a show at the Starwood we went to a place called the Okiedogs and two homosexual guys walked by and I started a fight." One of those homosexuals was named Dan Bradbury, and, as mentioned above, was killed in the brawl. Although Adams was charged with murder, he claimed that he had left the fight by the time the man died, and was convicted of felony assault. He served just six months in prison.
Scanning through the barrage of celebratory obituaries, one could be forgiven for missing that rather large blemish on Adams's resume.
The initial New York Times obituary on his death failed to mention that Adams, who, as their headline says, "changed skateboarding into something radical," participated in what looks an awful lot like a hate crime a few decades ago. A more in-depth follow-up story published Sunday with the title "In Empty Pools, Sport's Pioneer Found a Way to Make a Splash" devotes one sentence to it: "In 1982 he was convicted of felony assault for involvement in the stomping death of a gay man at a concert in Hollywood." The Associated Press acknowledged the incident in which the "colorful rebel" started a fight and then helped beat a gay man to death by writing, "At the height of his fame in the early 1980s, Adams was convicted of felony assault, launching a string of prison stints over the next 24 years"—with no mention of the fact that the victim was a gay man, or that he died as a result. The Los Angeles Times, who called Adams "legendary" and "one of the edgy Z-boys of the sport," devoted one sentence to the incident, also with no mention of the fact that Bradbury was gay, summing it up neatly: "He served six months for his involvement in a fight in Hollywood that resulted a man's death." [sic]
BuzzFeed, ever the bastion of editorial integrity, called Adams a "lord" but didn't bother mentioning the event at all. The Washington Post, which pretty much just jammed everyone else's takes into one, cited the AP and said only that Adams, whose "legacy […] lives on," was "convicted of felony assault and served jail time…" CNN, for its part, called him a "legend" and added him to what appears to be a bizarre, continuously-updated slideshow of people who have died in 2014, but didn't mention the assault. Gawker, a celebrity gossip website, republished a chunk of the AP article with a few extra sentences thrown in, called him a "legendary Dogtown skateboarder" in the headline, and tied it up with this quote from Stacy Peralta: "He was like the original viral spore that created skateboarding. He was it."
When Adams was asked about the incident in an interview just last month with Wildland magazine, he denied the fight had anything to do with Bradbury's sexual orientation: "The trouble we got into that night had nothing to do with the fact the people we got into a fight with were gay. It was during the Punk Rock days in Hollywood and it was a violent time. […] We weren't bashing gays, we were just out to bash anyone who we came in contact with."
It's hard to say whether or not that's true. There is precious little information online about Bradbury or the night of his death. What we do know is that sometime over the last decade or so, Adams turned to Christianity—like a lot of old people do when they realize they are going to die soon. And, as of last month at least, Adams didn't have a terribly progressive outlook on gay rights. "As far as how I view gay relationships and gay marriage," he told Wildland, "I am 100 percent against them, however I do respect gay people, I just tell them what the Bible says."
Having been a skateboarder for the past 17 years or so, I appreciate the things Adams did to further the sport's progression. I also understand the knee-jerk reaction from the skateboarding community to defend and lionize one of our own, and am fully prepared for the tidal wave of hate that will flood my Twitter feed after this article is published. But we're doing a disservice to everyone—especially the friends and relatives of Dan Bradbury—when we push the uglier parts of Jay Adams's life under the rug in favor of promoting the "bad boy skateboarder" trope. If we want to acknowledge the fact that Adams was stylish as hell and influenced the way future generations of kids ride on wooden toys, let's do that. But when we make him out to be skateboarding incarnate, as Christian Hosoi did when he told the Times, "Jay embodied our culture and our lifestyle all in one," or as Stacy Peralta implied when he told XGames.com that Adams was the "purest form of skateboarder that I've ever seen," we hitch our sport to the coattails of a guy who probably wasn't as great a person as he was a skateboarder.
UPDATE: In the 2004 book Scarred for Life by Keith David Hamm, which is only available in print, Adams describes the incident that took place that night:
One night in Hollywood, deep into booze and backed by his boys, Jay mouthed off to a male couple—one white, one black—strolling hand in hand down the street. After Jay's initial provocation—"Fuck you, you fuckin' homos!—things got ugly.
"I kicked the big white guy, knocked him into the paper machines… and then the black guy squared off and I took off my shirt and I go, 'Come on! Nigger! Faggot! I'll kill you!' And he socked me. Pow! Knocked me down. Then Polar Bear [Dennis Agnew] knocked him out. Boom! Then the white guy came back over and I ran and I jumped and kicked him in the mouth and knocked him out. So they were both on the ground, basically knocked out. And I grabbed Dennis and we left… A bunch of [other] guys started kicking the black guy, with boots on. And he died."
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