Rodeo cowboys are like strippers, or maybe freelance writers. Unless you have skin in the game, or unless you're a big fan of the pastime, the participants are necessarily anonymous.
The bumps they take, and the risks they assume — all very real. The same can be said for the payout, or lack thereof.
Just as a writer can get stiffed when he writes a story that gets spiked, the same can be said about some country-strong stud who gets thrown from a bull before the 8 seconds are up. Biggie Smalls once rapped, "Mo money, mo problems," but no money definitely does not equate to no problems.
The risks the riders take are far too great. When the Professional Roughstock Series rolled through the Jacksonville Equestrian Center Saturday night — the second stop on the circuit's 2014 tour — I saw a half-dozen sick bumps from the back of a bucking bronco or bull. Bumps that might have killed a lesser man, a man like me, for example — concussive head bumps, landings on the neck and so on.
Rodeo is no country for old men. Josi Young — a bareback rider from Buhl, Idaho, who took home a grand total of $14,188.46 during the 2013 season, placing him second in bareback-rider total earnings, according to the PRS website — made it to the final four, only to take an especially hard landing. As he lay on the ground, motionless, the announcer's stentorian voice held forth about the need to pray for him. Just as the crowd's silence reached a prayerful level, Young was back on his feet.
Miracle of miracles? Or conditioned response?
"No big contracts, no guarantees. If you don't ride, you don't get paid," said the announcer to the crowd — a sellout crowd of at least 1,000, with people being turned away by the police. Blue-collar, as you would expect, folks who arrived there in their gleaming F-150s, some attired in Western togs, others in "Duck Dynasty" paraphernalia. The code of the Good Ol' Boy in 2014 is that of mutually assured obsolescence. Within the context of that shared understanding, there is no expectation of getting paid if you don't go to work. Work 'till you die; rodeo, for all of its obvious attendant risks, is no different from walking across a construction scaffold. You gear up and go, no matter how you feel.
This grim reality is mitigated, of course, by the fact that rodeo brings its participants, if not the lucre of major professional sports — the top PRS earner claimed less than $20,000 in earnings in 2013 — real glory and exposure. Most of these guys come from small towns out West, places where proficient handling of a bucking bronco has both a utilitarian component and a sense of glamour. Growing up in places like Elko, Nev., means that you quite likely are not going to be world-renowned for anything save rodeo or country music. For those with the desire to make their mark in the world, rodeo is a way out. Maybe the only way out.
Ultimately, though, what really makes rodeo fan-friendly are the layered distractions, which make the event seem much more like entertainment than a primal struggle between a flawed man and a wound-up beast. There was almost no instance during the night when we weren't forced to endure some form of testosterone-infused jock rock. Every insipid anthem from the last 30 years made it into rotation: chestnuts like "Rack City" and "Don't Stop Believin'" and "We Will Rock You."
Fireworks, of course. And the most pathetic rodeo "clown" imaginable — a 20-year-old guy built like Miley Cyrus, clad in Umbros and a T-shirt, throwing footballs into the crowd as if to remind them that it's just a show, just a preponderance of gimmicks and promotions for sponsors like Wrangler Jeans and Ram Trucks.
And really, that's all it can be. Roughstock promoted itself in Jacksonville much more than it promoted its athletes — sort of like Ultimate Fighting Championship under Dana White, the brand takes precedence over its practitioners. Given the high probability that a marquee player can be crippled on any given night, perhaps that's wise. The show can always go on; there will always be more riders looking to succeed — just as there will never be a shortage of aspirant strippers or would-be deadline hacks.
Even the most dangerous games are incentivized well enough to ensure a constant stream of players. Churn is simply part of the business model; in rodeo, so are concussions and critical injuries. The show must go on.