Thursday, November 20, 2008

Straws in the Wind

Sometimes it’s the little things that tell the whole tale. An interesting aspect of the coverage of Justin McBride’s retirement at the PBR World Finals was that for the first time I can recall, McBride’s discomfort with all the hoopla was increasingly evident. I don’t mean to suggest that he was rude or short when he was on camera, because he was unfailingly polite. It just seemed to me that the strain of having people in his face all the time was finally starting to show, or maybe it was just the relief of knowing he wouldn’t have to put up with it much longer that was showing.

In Fried Twinkies and Buckle Bunnies, Josh Peter describes McBride as wild and profane in the locker room, so it must have taken McBride a while to learn how to talk to the media without blurting out something inappropriate. The closest he came to outright saying he was tired of it all was during an interview early on the first weekend of the finals, when Justin McKee cornered him to talk about his ride. McBride dispensed the usual platitudes about the bull in question, but then he said something that caused McKee to immediately back off and say, in effect, he knew McBride didn’t enjoy that sort of thing.

But there was another moment, in the piece about McBride’s decision to retire, when he said that he was retiring because he didn’t enjoy riding bulls anymore and was looking forward to doing something different. He specifically said he wasn’t going to miss being interviewed and all that sort of thing, and at that moment, I thought I might have glimpsed a flash of that kid that Peters spent time with during the 2004 season.

Even though I hated it every single time the Hyping Justin machine started up on Versus, I never thought that McBride was inviting it, and on at least one occasion, he rather pointedly said that Marchi was the best bull rider in the world this season. Unfortunately, the folks who should have been paying attention just as pointedly ignored what he was saying and continued to laud him to the skies and make stupid remarks like, “The reason Guilherme is doing so well this season is that Justin isn’t riding.” I don’t think I have ever seen such an example of fractured logic in my life, and I spent several years teaching college freshman how to write a decent sentence, so I am a master at spotting fractured logic when I see (or hear) it. The coverage of the event when Justin returned, which one of my readers dubbed "The Justin Almighty Show," was just embarrassing, and I have a suspicion that McBride himself probably had the grace to be embarrassed by it.

It’s impossible to say whether the Hype Machine originated at PBR headquarters or if it was strictly something the folks at Versus cranked up, but when McBride was forced to sit out the first half of the season to nurse a shoulder injury, it became very clear very fast that somebody somewhere was panicking at the idea that there would be no conquering American hero this season. Various substitutes for McBride, including Travis Briscoe and Wiley Peterson, were offered up, and none of them worked out very well. Briscoe started off riding reasonably well, but then he also started praising God every time somebody shoved a microphone at him, and shortly thereafter his season went south. I'm not suggesting there's a connection between those two things, though it would please me mightly if there were.

After he broke his leg at an amateur rodeo, Briscoe was shuffled off center stage right smart. For a brief stretch, it looked like Peterson, who seems like a nice enough guy, was being groomed for the spot, but he is so awkward and stiff in front of the camera that it was soon clear he wasn’t the man for the job. I’m thinking specifically about the segment on whether helmets should be mandatory equipment, which featured Wiley. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody who looked so uncomfortable on television. He seems to be able to handle post-ride interviews decently, but he clearly was out of his element in a situation that required more of him.

All in all, I think McBride acquitted himself as well as he could have. He never seemed to court the hysteria, but he appears to have cooperated as much as he could stand to, and I have to think he was doing it not only for himself, but also for what he thought to be the good of the sport. I don’t believe that anyone forced McBride into retirement—I think he is leaving on his own terms and he appears to be excited about the prospect. He says he’s been riding since he was three, in which case he’s earned a rest, and certainly he is financially set to do whatever he wants with the rest of his life. He’s got a wife and a little girl to think about, and he seems to have grown up enough over the past couple of years to realize that there are conflicts between being a professional bull rider and being a husband and father. In the In Harm’s Way episode about bull riders, McBride’s wife Jill remarked that she’d like to have him home more, which I suspect is bull-rider-wife code for, “What I really wish is that he wasn’t off doing something that could get him killed every weekend.” It says a lot about her appreciation for her husband that she recognized the bull riding was something he just had to do, and it says a lot about McBride that he’s matured enough to recognize that he really doesn’t have to do it anymore.

But it is equally obvious to me that he’s relieved that he won’t have to contend with the media, at least for a while. That relief could turn out to be short-lived. As the divine Jean observed on the zonkboard yesterday, if McBride’s music career takes off, he will be dealing with fans less mannerly than those he usually encounters at PBR events. But I don’t see any signs that McBride will decide to “un-retire” if the music business doesn’t work out as he’d like it to. He is leaving the sport as a class act, and I wish him, and his family, all the best as they launch out into this new adventure.


shannon said...

Very nice post, SQ and very much what I was thinking.

I've read other places, too, about certain things that were said during his interviews and now I wish I'd listened to them. By the time the finals rolled around, I just didn't want to take the time. I guess I missed some interesting and even eye opening comments.

Stockyard Queen said...

McBride was pretty subtle about expressing his discontent with all the attention, but what was almost equally interesting was the way the commentators walked on eggshells around him. Justin McKee jumped away from him like McBride had tried to set him on fire. It was entertaining, in a droll kind of way.