Kelly Slater has had that sort of impact. No, he didn't literally invent the sport. And everyone knows Duke Kahanamoku is the "father of modern surfing." But "modern" is a relative term. Duke's surfing was nothing like it is today. Surfing today isn't what it was when KS appeared on the scene as a blue-eyed, squeaky-voiced prodigy in Florida. If Duke is the father, perhaps that makes KS surfing's Jesus or Muhammad or some other divine spirit essential for the betterment of surfing, someone better than anyone before him, year after year after year after year, and so on. In surfing so well, making the once counter-culture sport so appealing to a wider marketplace, he single-handedly transformed surfing into the financial enterprise that it is today. It didn't hurt that he made some well-publicized mistakes (Baywatch, dating Pamela Anderson) along the way. Or that he's a good looking guy. Or that he can string together a couple sentences in post-heat interviews that doesn't contain the typical substance-free surfer-speak. He's exactly what surfing wanted, but never knew it needed.
The media and the critics like to try to hurl barbs. It's what the media does. It feasts on controversy and nay-saying. And yet, every time the critics, the magazines or the announcers think they've identified a weakness, a kink in the armor, something that will allow the next generation or the next big name to finally unseat the king from his throne, he responds. He improves. He gets stronger or more flexible or faster. The man is on the wrong end of his 30s from where most athletes hit their performance peak and, yet, it may be safe to say that Kelly Slater is a better, more dynamic surfer at 39 than he was at 29. That's not natural.
He's got 10 world titles. Mark Richards, the next closest, has four. He's Michael Jordan, without the guidance of Phil Jackson or help of Scottie Pippen. He's Lance Armstrong, minus the performance enhancing drugs (come on, the truth will come out soon enough). He's Tiger Woods (sans bushel of mistresses), without the helicopter parents and in a sport that is far more physically demanding. Kelly Slater should be considered one of the greatest athletes of all time. But he won't, because surfing is still on the outside of mainstream sports, looking in. One day sports fans will realize.
As for the New York Times article by Matt Warshaw calling for KS to walk away, along with the various bloggers and media folk echoing the same belief: back off and let the once-in-a-lifetime athlete do his thing. Maybe he has another title or two in him. Maybe he'll step away slowly, competing in (and occasionally winning) a handful of contests a year. He's earned the right to dictate the remainder of his competitive career. Dane Reynolds, Jordy Smith, Owen Wright, Julian Wilson—all the young guns can wait. Or they can try to usher KS into retirement. But it doesn't seem to be working so far.
Quite a bit of the reason why anyone really gives a damn about surfing is because of the contributions of this one man. He's helped the sport to advance. He made being a professional surfer a viable career choice (sure, the Australians busted down the door, but KS made it so that drug-running wasn't a part of the gig). He's inspired legions of groms. He gave surfing a face. He invented surfing as we know it.