Friday, December 19, 2008

Unintended Consequences

Back in November, we quietly passed the anniversary of the first post at “Turn Him Out!” At the time, the season was racing to its spectacular finale and the birthday of the blog wasn’t nearly so important as trying to stay up to speed with the results of each weekend’s event.

Now the season is nearly seven weeks behind us, and in just a little over two more, the 2009 season will kick off on the day after New Year’s in Baltimore, so maybe it’s time to take stock. The 2008 season threw me a lot of curves, most of which I’d have to lump into the category of “throwing stuff against the wall.” As sometimes happens, though, almost none of what got thrown stuck, and as Ruby would opine, some of what did stick “didn’t work out too good.” Here are a few items that come immediately to mind.

· Lauding the Next Great White (American) Hope. When Justin McBride announced that he would miss roughly the first half of the season to have surgery on his shoulder, it became clear pretty quickly that some folks at PBR headquarters, or at Versus, or maybe at both, were panicking because there would be no returning American hero to praise to the skies. During PBR broadcasts, there was an instant rush to latch onto the first U.S. citizen who had ridden decently and to start hollering about how he was a contender for the world title. Guys who passed through this revolving door included Travis Briscoe, Wiley Peterson, and Sean Willingham.

All the while, of course, Guilherme Marchi was launching his (ultimately) successful run for the world title, and from the beginning of the season he rode like he would not be denied, but instead of doing the obvious and lifting him up for our admiring gazes, the Powers That Be gave him only the cursory tip of the hat. The fans were not slow to point out this inequity, which of course sparked loud denials that American riders were getting more attention than Marchi was. I do not believe that every human being on the planet is irresistibly prejudiced in favor of his/her own, to such an extent that we can’t even recognize our own bigotries, and I am not accusing anyone of being a racist, but I think in this case, those who were responsible for this tawdry, and ultimately silly, charade should examine their consciences and try to do better next time.

· The Path to Greatness That Wasn’t. The bull draft was added this season with much fanfare, hoopla, and Ty Murray declaring that a rider getting to pick his bull would amount to the same advantage as winning pole position in NASCAR, but it hasn’t quite played out that way. If anybody thought having to pick their bulls in the short-go was going to force the riders to do more research, they were sadly mistaken. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that perhaps two of any given 20 riders in the short-go have much notion about which bull they should choose. Instead, what we’ve been treated is the sight of a rider lumbering up the ramp, where he is greeted by (generally) Justin McKee and (almost always) Cody Lambert. He mumbles to Cody, “What’s the rankest bull left in the pen?” or maybe “Which bull should I pick, Cody?” and Lambert makes a suggestion. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t have Lambert up there—I’d make the riders do their own picking without resorting to what amounts to a cheat-sheet. But then, when I was teaching writing, I drew up a list of seven rhetorical sins that would automatically win any student so foolish as to commit one an “F” on his/her 500 word essay, so obviously I think setting boundaries is pretty important.

Interestingly, at the finals Ty Murray said flat-out that Marchi had cost himself the event title by picking bulls he could ride, rather than the rankest one left. Sorry, Ty, you can’t have it both ways. What rider with any sense would risk losing the world title just to prove he has the biggest cojones? Clearly, the answer isn’t “Guilherme Marchi,” which calls into question the widespread notion that among Latin Americans, machismo will always trump brains.

· The Shootout that Fizzled. Introduced in about mid-season, the PBR Team Shootout may have been in the works for years, but it still smelled like something trumped up at the last minute to establish a relationship with ESPN. Maybe the PBR had been pounding on ESPN’s door for years, maybe ESPN came to the PBR—there’s no way to know. Nevertheless, the idea was interesting—each of the top 20 riders would chose a partner from among all the eligible PBR card-carrying riders, and the 10 teams would compete over a series of four events, with the four highest scoring teams going on to a finals in Pueblo. Sean Willingham immediately won himself considerable scorn from some of my readers, who thought it unsportsmanlike of him to pick Justin McBride, who was ranked in the bottom 45 because he’d been gone most of the season, but who still was the world champion. I didn’t think that argument held much water because despite all the camaraderie among them, bull riders are competing against one another, not just against the bulls. Had I been in Sean’s place, I might not have chosen Justin, but I for damned sure would have picked somebody I thought would help me win, not just somebody I wanted to help out.

But since the pay-outs were winners-take-all, and the riders didn’t gain anybody any points toward the world title, the most significant outcome of the Shootout was that several guys got hurt, some of them badly, and had nothing to show for it. Justin McBride suffered a concussion and dropped out of the competition almost immediately, and Brian Canter was out for months with a facial injury. In an unrelated but still eerie occurrence, Wesley Silcox, a PRCA champion who was Dustin Elliot’s partner, broke a leg at an X-Treme Bulls event and thus had to drop out of the Shootout. In the end, L.J. Jenkins and Austin Meiers won, an outcome I doubt anybody expected. Meiers probably benefited most from the Shootout, since his 2008 season, both before and thereafter, was, er, not what he’d hoped it would be.

· The Match I Hold a Grudge Against. Of all the bad ideas broached in professional sports, the Insta-Shot Grudge Match has to be one of the worst. Sponsored by the makers of a sleazy product with even sleazier advertising, and featuring a bull painted blue for the competition, the Grudge Match’s best feature is that it vanished from view quickly when the sponsor apparently pulled out. (Uh, sorry about that.) Several readers speculated here about whether the bull’s genitals were also painted blue, and several agreed that the guy who got that job should win the Grudge Match, hands down. I guess we should be happy that our good friend Bob, the public face of equally sleazy Enzyte, has only put in occasional appearances on Versus this year. I live in fear that Bob and the Insta-Shot folks will get together, and then we’ll have to endure commercials touting aids for both enhancing the requisite equipment to screw all night long, and the energy to do so.

· The Crowning of Justin Almighty, Who Promptly Abdicated. I’ve no doubt that all the hype surrounding Justin McBride’s return to the BFTS played at least some part in his decision to retire. I don't know whether the PBR/Versus folks were as dismayed by his announcement as many fans were, but I, like anybody else who was paying attention, did see Justin McKee sheepishly running away after McBride commented about “the media” in a behind-the-chutes interview. If J.W. Hart, who is McBride’s unofficial chief booster, wonders out loud why McBride is being interviewed when he hasn’t done anything yet, you can take it to the bank that the attention is over the top.

I’m not arguing, really, that the PBR and/or Versus shouldn’t keep trying to make things interesting, but I do think once the new idea is in play, everybody should resist the temptation to micromanage the outcome. Please, guys, let’s roll with the punches, okay? Part of the fun of throwing stuff against the wall is seeing what sticks and what slides. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains. Sometimes, you strike out.