Voices

Horse play

Professional rodeo is surging in popularity-even in blue states

Issue: "Iraq: Terror without end," Oct. 2, 2004

The Olympics featured sports ranging from fencing to synchronized swimming. But it didn't have rodeo. That would be a strictly Western Hemisphere sport. Chile and Mexico have rodeos, but the United States has turned the classic cowboy skills of roping and riding into a complicated professional sport.

Every year, hundreds of rodeos take place in small towns and big cities across the country-not just in the West but in practically every state in the union, including New York and New England-and yet, despite the sport's surging popularity, it operates just below the cultural radar screen of mainline observers.

But professional rodeo is different from most other professional sports. Cowboys must pay hefty entrance fees for the privilege of competing. And they only get paid if they win.

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If the rodeo system of payment only upon winning were adopted in other professional sports, players in the NBA might actually be motivated to play defense. There would be few spoiled underachievers. There would be many fewer overpaid mediocrities.

In rodeo, cowboys do not want to get off easy. Bull riders, like gymnasts and figure skaters-if a sport so violent can be compared to sports so genteel-are scored on a point system. The harder the bull is to ride, the more it twists and jumps and threatens, the more points the cowboy can get if he can stay on. An easy ride gets few points, so for a rodeo cowboy the more dangerous, the better.

Professional rodeo now has its minor leagues and its major leagues, as cowboys work their way up from small events into the big time. A cowboy must have earned $1,000 in winnings to become a member of the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association (PRCA), with its national circuits, standings, and championships.

As in NASCAR, rodeo cowboys earn rankings by points and winnings, entitling them to enter ever-bigger competitions. Also as in NASCAR, corporate sponsorships have entered in, to the consternation of purists, with businesses such as Wrangler, U.S. Smokeless Tobacco, and Pace Picante holding naming rights to events and plastering their logos on cowboys.

The allure of the cowboy keeps building. Last year, rodeos set record attendance figures. The PRCA now claims 23 million fans. Rodeos are now televised on ESPN, ESPN2, OLN (Outdoor Life Network), and CBS.

The life of a rodeo cowboy is hard. As with other professional athletes, being on the road constantly (though cowboys pay their own way) means many temptations. The financial strain of travel costs, entry fees, and small chances to win can be crippling. And yet, the sport is addicting. The strain of rodeoing on marriages is legendary, as chronicled in the songs of Garth Brooks ("Rodeo," "Beaches of Cheyenne") and former calf-roper George Strait ("I Can Still Make Cheyenne," "Amarillo by Morning").

But Christians have a strong presence in rodeo. Many rodeo cowboys belong to the Fellowship of Christian Cowboys. Many cowboys first learned how to rope and ride and be a rodeo clown in a whole network of Christian rodeo camps, which serve as training grounds for the sport.

The nemesis of rodeo is the animal-rights groups, which insist that the sport is cruel to animals. The PRCA denies the charge, insisting that the spurs and straps that make the animals kick only "tickle" the animals' reflexes, and that the animals-which only "work" for eight seconds at a time-are well cared for and have longer lives than normal.

Still, rodeo can be rough on animals. At a rodeo I attended this summer, a calf was killed, its neck snapped back too sharply when it was roped. But at least the animals fight back. During the bull rides, bulls weighing nearly a ton not only threw their riders but in some cases tossed them with their horns. As the announcer observed, bull riding is the true "extreme sport." The primal conflict between animals and human beings goes deep into the human experience, and bringing it to the surface in the modern world is no doubt part of rodeo's appeal.

The foreign press derides President Bush, with his Texas ways and his willingness to stage showdowns with our enemies, as a "cowboy." But cowboys have lots of virtues, such as courage, self-reliance, independence, and a refusal to back down. And, as the growing popularity of rodeo shows, Americans appreciate cowboys.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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