National High School Rodeo loses top sponsor after probe affirms abuse

Published in ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2007


SPRINGFIELD, IL--"Choice Hotels, has terminated sponsorship, scheduled to run until 2009, of the National High School Rodeo Association," SHARK president Steve Hindi announced on April 24.

"The early termination, for rules violations and animal abuse, follows a review of video documentation supplied by SHARK," Hindi said, crediting SHARK staff member Janet Enoch for successful liaison with Choice corporate officials.

The Choice chain "includes Clarion, Comfort Inn, Comfort Suites, Quality Inn, Sleep Inn, Econolodge, Rodeway, Cambria Suites, Mainstay Suites, and Suburban Extended Stay Hotel," Hindi said.

Choice quit sponsoring the National High School Rodeo Association 12 days after the Illinois Department of Agriculture belatedly admitted that animals were abused at the 2006 National High School Finals Rodeo.

"Whether anyone will be prosecuted for violating cruelty laws is up to the Sangamon County state's attorney's office," reported Springfield State Journal-Register staff writer Bruce Rushton on April 12, 2007.

Rushton wrote six and a half months after sparking the Department of Agriculture investigation with an exposé based on the same SHARK undercover videography that influenced Choice.

"In files turned over to county prosecutors, agriculture officials confirmed that videos showed bulls being poked with sharp objects," Rushton elaborated. "After viewing still photographs provided by activists, agriculture officials also determined that a man had slapped a bull and that tails were pulled as bulls left chutes. At least one bull was electrically shocked," contrary to National High School Rodeo Association rules.

"Investigators didn't identify any suspects," Rushton continued, "and the department, which is charged with enforcing animal-cruelty laws, did not recommend whether charges should be brought."

SHARK founder Steve Hindi warned Illinois Division of Food Safety veterinarian Colleen O'Keefe by e-mail while the rodeo was still underway that animals were being shocked and jabbed. O'Keefe responded that no cruelty had been documented.

The frequent reluctance of public officials to charge rodeo participants was displayed in a different arena on March 13, 2007, when District Judge Sara B. Derr of Spokane County, Washington, reversed herself and refused to allow Chris Anderlik, 80, to pursue a private case against sheriff's deputies Damon Simmons and Ballard L. Bates for killing a six-month-old black Angus calf with stun guns on April 12, 2006. A farm escapee, the calf was deemed a traffic hazard.

"Bates' stun gun was discharged 42 times," said Associated Press. "Simmons' weapon was discharged for more than four minutes. Each packs a 50,000-volt wallop.

"Acting on a motion from Deputy Prosecutor Brian C. O'Brien, a former rodeo bull rider, Derr ruled that she had misapplied a court rule when she initially decided that the case could proceed," Associated Press said.

The significance of the case to rodeo is that similar shocking devices are routinely used to goad bulls and broncos into bucking.

"Do not pass Go"

While rodeo performers continue to enjoy virtual immunity from prosecution, Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association commissioner Troy Ellerman during the last week of February 2007 drew the "go to jail" card for leaking sealed grand jury documents to the San Francisco Chronicle, lost the PRCA commissionership, and did not collect $200,000 in severance that the PRCA board first voted to give him, then rescinded a day later.

A former trick rider, bull rider, and film stunt double, Ellerman ran afoul of the law while representing Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative vice president James Valente in 2004.

Valente and BALCO founder Victor Conte pleaded guilty in 2005 to distributing illegal steroids. BALCO clients allegedly involved included several prominent major league baseball players, including single-season home run record holder Barry Bonds.

Ellerman was reportedly exposed by private eye Larry McCormack, who worked for Conte early in the BALCO case. Later hired by Ellerman to head the PRCA Hall of Fame, McCormack told the FBI about the leak after Ellerman fired him in September 2006.

Pleading guilty to charges of obstructing justice, perjury and criminal contempt of court, Ellerman is expected to be sentenced to serve two up to years in jail and to pay a fine of $250,000. He potentially faced 15 years in jail and a fine of $2 million.

Ellerman, 43, was named PRCA commissioner in January 2005. He retired most of $3.6 million in accumulated debt by breaking up the PRCA near-monopoly on staged-for-television events.

"He sold the rights to the association's bull riding tour--which reportedly was losing more than $1 million a year--to a TV production company that paid about $1.5 million for three years," recalled Yahoo Sports columnist Josh Peter. "Then he sold the rights to another regular rodeo series that was losing money to a group headed by Jack Sperling, owner of the Minnesota Wild of the National Hockey League."

Falling audience

The International Pro Rodeo Association, a much smaller rival of the PRCA, meanwhile sold itself to survive, "bought for a song by some former, apparently disgruntled PRCA folks," said Steve Hindi.

Affirmed the pro-rodeo web site RodeoAttitude.com, "Recently rumors spread throughout the rodeo industry that the IPRA, which began in 1957 in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, was in financial trouble and on the verge of dissolving."

Acknowledged the IPRA web site, "A small group of investors have signed an agreement to purchase the IPRA," effective on February 26, 2007.

A Gallup poll in mid-December 2006 found that rodeo does not even visibly rank among the spectator sports most often named by Americans as their favorite. The pollsters included rodeo as a possible choice, but with just half a percentage point of audience share, it ranked with volleyball, far behind even figure skating and gymnastics.

"Gallup broke the responses down by age, gender, and geography," pointed out Hindi. "If we were to believe even a tiny bit of rodeo propaganda, we would find rodeos to be a significant activity in the west--but it didn't show up," and likewise did not show up as a favorite of either men or women, old or young, in any region. Similar polls showed rodeo topping 1% in audience share only four times since 1937, all between 1994 and 2005.

"According to the PRCA," Hindi continued, "in 1953 there were 578 PRCA-sanctioned rodeos, while the number in 2004 was 671, an increase of 16%," as the U.S. human population rose by 88%.

More critical press

Livestock fair promoters have guaranteed themselves newspaper coverage by helping local papers to sell ads for special sections, filled with "advertorial" text often written by publicists rather than news staff.

As rodeo emerged from livestock fair arenas to seek an independent audience, similar co-promotions roped newspaper publishers into becoming defacto rodeo sponsors. Reporters assigned to cover rodeo usually came from the sports or farm beats, tending to lack an investigative orientation.

The uncritical newspaper attitude toward rodeo may be changing, as more hard news reporters become aware of rodeo issues, and as weak reader interest plus electronic competition cuts the revenue potential of rodeo supplements.

Newspaper reportage about rodeo has dropped 21% since 1995, according to a proportionately weighted ANIMAL PEOPLE analysis of the 1,428 daily newspapers archived at NewsLibrary.com, while self-critical appraisals of how rodeos have been covered have emerged even in such traditional rodeo strongholds as San Antonio, Texas.

"Why doesn't the Express-News provide fair and balanced coverage of such a brutal and inhumane sport?" rhetorically asked animal advocate Trudy Land, in a February 2007 letter about coverage of the annual San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo.

ANIMAL PEOPLE publisher Kim Bartlett asked similar questions about Texas newspapers' coverage of rodeo more than 30 years ago, but back then the editors did not bother to answer.

Responded San Antonio Express-News public editor Bob Richter to Land, "The Express-News has devoted hundreds of column inches to the 2007 stock show and rodeo, and hasn't yet quoted anyone who says it hurts calves to be lassoed at high speed, or that broncs who are bred to buck aren't having fun. In fact, Express-News researcher Mike Knoop reports that the Express-News hasn't explored that angle in coverage since 2000."

After the Illinois Department of Agriculture confirmed the rule-breaking and abuses at the 2006 National High School Finals Rodeo, Steve Hindi asked the Springfield State Journal-Register to drop sponsorship of the 2007 National High School Finals Rodeo, to be held July 23-29 in Springfield.

Wrote State Journal-Register staff writer Rushton, "Sue Schmitt, publisher of the State Journal-Register, said the newspaper will withdraw neither its sponsorship nor its scrutiny of the event from a news perspective."

The Illinois Department of Agriculture re-examined Hindi's videotapes after Rushton on October 1, 2006 reported that, "Video footage appears to confirm that animals were often goaded to buck, contrary to state and National High School Rodeo Association standards."

Editorialized the State Journal-Register the same day, "We suspect such abuse is not uncommon at rodeos. There is one way to mitigate the public relations damage: end the abuse, so it can't be videotaped."

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