Monday, May 9, 2011

How Low Can We Go?

I'm sure we can all recall the judging fiascoes of the past, and how we were reassured that judges would go to clinics, things would change. Well, unless the clinics consist of, "How to give bonus points to all-American dudes on the fly," and "Toss a coin to decide when hipping equals a re-ride," they don't seem to be helping. Between the total lack of clarity regarding what's a re-ride and what isn't, and of course the inconsistent scoring, frankly, it's becoming somewhat embarrassing to be a fan of this sport. That's not even getting into the infamous Lima DQ incident, and believe me, I could rant about that one for days.

But lest I get off on a days-long tangent, let's go back to Albuquerque, a place where the scoring was very, um, interesting. Stockyard Queen, Montana Barn Cat and I attended this event with several people who could be described as casual fans. They had never attended a live event and knew nothing about the current cowboys or past judging issues. Somewhere in the midst of Flight 3 on Saturday, one of these relative newcomers turned to us old hands and said, "So, I think I see how this works. If you are Brazilian, you get several fewer points for no real reason?" How frustrating, how infuriating, to have to say, "Well, er, essentially.... yes."

While the scoring has been up and down all season, unfortunately, there have been multiple weekends this year marred by extremely poor judging. Now some of this can perhaps be explained by the good old "flash" argument. I am reluctant to name specific cowboys because they don't control the scoring, but someone please tell me how L.J. Jenkins has more flash than Silvano Alves, or Ryan McConnel has more flash than Fabiano Vieira? I get it with the King of Flash, Chris Shivers, or J.B. Mauney at his best, but most riders really don't have that much magical razzle-dazzle that can explain the difference. And some of the time it is just inexplicable -- if someone flashy is running way behind the bull and having to throw repeated hail marys to get back into position, why is that worth more points that someone who sits in the middle in control and spurs to show further control? How is it that someone whose bull gives up at 6.8 seconds gets a higher score than someone whose bull gives his all for 8? How is it that riding an "unrideable" bull gives one a lower score than riding one of the "money bulls" that guys should ride? How is it that two nearly exact "hipping" incidents leads to one re-ride and one without a re-ride option? Unfortunately, the common denominator often happens to be that the guy getting a little something extra is from the good ole USA, and the one getting shorted a few points is from Brazil.

I'm not sure the slanted judging is conscious or deliberate, although there are times when one judge is lagging so far behind the others in posting a score that it is pretty suspicious. I suspect some of it is unconscious and goes back to the fact that there are a lot of great riders from Brazil right now, and they are very dedicated and very talented and simply outclassing most of the American riders. This is a state of affairs that some may not welcome -- the U.S. is the top tier of bull-riding, and suddenly, the Americans are having trouble holding their own. Sure, there have been great Brazilian riders in the past, but not this many of them performing at the top level all at once. I highly suspect this is causing consternation up top, and judging by some horrible comments on the internet, within parts of the fan base as well. The PBR may protest, "We don't mind if Brazilians win again and again, REALLY, we don't," but I'd like more show, and a lot less tell.

Are some judges feeling the pressure of the "Brazilian domination" and consciously or unconsciously responding? It raises the question: is anyone reviewing the stats and trends on the scoring by each judge, in order to keep them honest? I would like to think that this is the case, but since the PBR doesn't even see fit to tell us the judges' names, I have my doubts. I just cannot understand why the continuing judging problems do not appear to have been addressed in any meaningful way -- suspending one judge and making the judges wear uniforms is fine, but when this is not followed by making any apparent changes to the system that gave rise to the problems in the first place... this is just appeasement to the fans and is solving absolutely nothing. The PBR has had ample time to address the judging inconsistencies, but outwardly, it doesn't really appear that they have done anything substantive.

So, in an effort to add some positive ideas to my negative post, here's a few suggestions for the PBR:

1. Reveal to the fans who the judges are. I can think of very few professional sports where the judges are anonymous. So far, the only judges I know by name are ones who have been disciplined or were in the middle of a controversial call where their faces were on television. This does not give a feeling of confidence.

2. Have a greater rotation of judges. This way, if there are biases on the part of some judges, unconscious or otherwise, they will have less impact.

3. Have a time limit for when the score must be submitted. Display all the scores at once, after the last one has been submitted. Do not allow changes to scores unless there was an obvious typographical error in entry. This will make it a lot less sketchy if a score must be changed after the fact, and will avoid the scenarios where a judge scores far after the others.

4. Have some sort of review process and tracking of scoring to uncover any issues. Judges are human and they will make mistakes and have unconscious biases. However, the PBR should have a system to know about any issues, if they don't already, so they can take action and make the judging as fair as possible.

5. Stop changing the rules randomly in the midst of the season, or, at the very least, explain clearly when this is happening and why this is happening. (As in, "guess what a slap means now?," and "hipping is only hipping when we want it to be.")

Yes, judges will make mistakes. Judges will blow calls. But when you shroud not only the judges but how they make their calls in mystery, it can't be a surprise when fans are uncertain about the fairness of it all. If this sport is going to turn into one where the golden boy(s) of the moment get gifts (points and re-rides) in order to keep the Great White Hope alive, I'm not interested. If the PBR really wants to be able to crown an American for sure, they should institute an "American Champion," the highest scoring American at the World Finals, as Australia and Canada do for their natives at their finals, regardless of who gets the most points overall. At least this would be consistent within the PBR, and with a guaranteed American champ, maybe that would calm some of the people who just can't stand that the Brazilians are staying on more bulls than the Americans.

That aside, the PBR is not the WWF. I don't tune in to see a "story." I don't care if the New Mexico natives win in New Mexico, if the top 10 is all guys from Brazil or all guys from America, or if an old champion comes back to win again, or if a Touring Pro invitee takes the place by storm. I am fine with any of those things or none of those happening, as long as whatever happens, happens fairly. I care that each guy is getting the best shot possible, and that the best guy at each event is winning. When it seems like this is systematically not taking place, my interest in the sport begins to wane.

PBR, you keep telling us that you are a serious sport. Well, then, give us irreproachable judging that we can understand, judged by named individuals who are on a rotation and are held to a professional standard, and attend professional refreshers and training on a regular basis, and tell and show us that this is taking place; then we will take you seriously. A sport that wants legitimacy needs judging integrity that is clear to participants, fans, and the casual viewer. You can add all the theme songs, slo-mo and "WIRED" moments you want, but if the judging is suspect, the "flash" isn't going to distract for long. Your choice, PBR. I hope you make the right one and do so loud and clear. Soon.