Edgy snowboard graphics test liberal Vermont

The Burton line of Love snowboards were on display at Darkside Snowboards in Stowe, Vt. The Burton line of Love snowboards were on display at Darkside Snowboards in Stowe, Vt. (Corey Hendrickson for The Boston Globe)
By Aimee Picchi
Globe Correspondent / January 5, 2009
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BURLINGTON, Vt. - For Nicole Zarrillo, seeing a snowboarder with one of Burton Snowboards' new Playboy designs at a Vermont ski slope underscored the reasons why many Vermonters - including her boss - are protesting the new men's snowboards.

"When you really think about it, it's a young man standing on top of a naked woman's body," said Zarrillo, 38, an office manager for a nonprofit based in Burlington, also home to Burton's headquarters. "I probably could have gotten past it, because I try to have an open mind, but seeing it like that, it's offensive."

Burton Snowboards, located in Vermont's largest city since 1992, cemented its reputation among Vermonters as a progressive company through employee benefits such as matching child-care payments and paying for half of a worker's gym membership.

Yet the company has found itself at the center of a grow ing controversy in the liberal state, with residents, students, and politicians debating free speech and sexism on the ski slopes. The Burlington City Council discussed asking Burton to withdraw the boards, and the Girl Scout Council of Vermont is considering taking concerns to lawmakers next month.

The outcry hasn't made a dent in sales of the new lines, Burton cofounder Jake Carpenter told the Burlington newspaper Seven Days in November. The Playboy line, called Love, and a second line called Primo, which depicts mutilated hands, have "completely oversold by virtue of this exposure," he said.

The debate has split Vermonters along a number of lines. There are parents who don't want their children to encounter the images at the state's family-friendly slopes; young snowboarders who cite right to free speech in buying the boards; and politicians who fear the criticism might drive Burton, one of the city's biggest employers with more than 500 Vermont workers, to move its headquarters elsewhere.

Zarrillo's boss, Mark Redmond, said he pulled his nonprofit, Spectrum Youth & Family Services, from a Burton program that donates snowboards to needy children after learning about the Playboy line and Primo, which depicts fingers mutilated by razors, a dog's teeth, and scissors. Because objectification of women increases the chance men will become abusive, he said, the boards are an important issue for both sexes.

"Once you bring something like that to the public domain, it's a public issue," said Redmond, who would like Burton to pull the unsold Love and Primo boards from stores. "Why is it OK for younger children to see it on the slopes or in the lift line?"

Carmel Quinn, who directs the Girl Scout Council of Vermont teen program, said she is talking to the group's teenage members about bringing the issue to lawmakers when the Vermont legislative session resumes this month.

That's something Girl Scout Brittany Wieland, 16, said she plans to do after she receives her internship assignment, which will pair her with one of the state's female legislators.

"I'd like them to make a law or something for the resorts to have a section of time, once or twice a week, where kids under 18 can't ski but people with those boards can, so you don't have to worry about the kids seeing the boards," Wieland said. "Snowboarding and skiing are supposed to be a family thing, not 'Hey, look at the naked person on my snowboard.' "

Several Vermont ski resorts, including Stowe Mountain Resort and Killington Resort, have banned their employees from riding on the snowboards, which range from $350 to $430 each and were issued in limited-edition runs. The images are taken from 1970s Playboy magazines, and the boards are marketed with language such as, "I'm on the market for someone who's looking to score serious action, no matter where they like to stick it."

Burton, one of the nation's biggest snowboard manufacturers, doesn't release financial information or sales data. But Vermonters in 2006 spent more per capita on snowboard gear than residents of any other state, according to trade group SnowSports Industries America.

Last month, the Burlington City Council toned down a proposed resolution asking Burton to withdraw the designs, instead urging that people on both sides of the issue sit down and talk about their concerns, according to Councilor Paul Decelles.

But neither Carpenter nor his wife, Donna, who helped found the company, has responded, Quinn said. Through a Burton spokeswoman, the Carpenters declined to be interviewed for this story.

In a public statement Nov. 24, Jake Carpenter wrote that "the local reaction to these graphics has been hurtful and out-of-line." He said the company targets 18-year-old men who want gear "their parents would never be caught dead in."

The Love snowboards "certainly have what real pornography always lacks - a sense of humor," Donna Carpenter wrote in a separate statement issued the same day.

The founder of the company's Women's Initiatives program, she cited her efforts to promote women's issues, adding: "These board graphics are retro, tongue-in-cheek and, in my opinion, harmless."

That's the point, said Jenna Geery, a sophomore at the University of Vermont and an officer of the school's snowboard team. She stopped at a Burlington snowboard shop to check out the designs, she said, and while she wouldn't buy one, she doesn't understand the objections.

"Some people think it's funny, and some people will buy it to [tick] people off," she said. "If you don't like the designs, you don't have to look at them. That's the beauty of America."

The debate has left some Vermonters grappling with an identity issue: In a liberal state that values free expression, how can so many residents be pushing for censorship?

"Burlington is the San Francisco of the East Coast," said Decelles, who cast the sole dissenting vote on the City Council resolution. "It blew me away that people are this upset for this long about this issue."

He said he worries that Burton might decide to move to another state because of the negative publicity.

That's something Jake Carpenter hinted at in his statement: "I would rather relocate the company to another state than compromise our commitment to listen to core snowboarders," he wrote.

More than 100 protesters marched in front of Burton's Burlington headquarters in October to protest the boards and urge consumers to boycott the company's products, according to the Burlington Free Press.

The debate over the boards illustrates a dilemma that might be particular to Burlington, said Philip Baruth, a University of Vermont professor who teaches a class on the literature of Vermont.

"Routinely, Burlington is cited as one of the healthiest places to live and the best place to raise your kids, so people are skittish about sending a message that conflicts with that pristine atmosphere," he said. "It's free speech against unfettered quality of life."

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