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Coming together, one rodeo at a time

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If you’re weary of the culture war’s inexorable creep into national sports, may I recommend a pleasant antidote? Spend a night at the rodeo. You’ll be glad you did.

There are over 600 rodeo competitions each year in towns large and small across America, many streamed live on the internet or broadcast on cable. They feel like Friday Night Lights and remind us how much fun sports can be without some blowhard shoehorning politics into the mix. Rodeos also showcase how thriving local communities build healthy cultures.

It was an unseasonably warm July evening as I walked into the Sheridan County Fairgrounds in northeastern Wyoming, home of the WYO Rodeo. A tractor groomed the ochre dirt as a steady stream of cowboy hats, gold belt buckles, and Cinch jeans filed into the stands. Chancey Williams’s song, “The World Needs More Cowboys,” amped up the crowd while the Jumbotron played highlights from the previous night’s competition.

Once most of the sold-out crowd of roughly 5,000 found their seats, the night began with a prayer and then the national anthem, sung in three-part harmony by the Craft Brothers and interpreted in sign language by 12-year-old Carly Plain Feather, a member of the Crow Nation. One needs only scant knowledge of the relationship between the United States and the Crow to understand the symbolism here. During the Indian Wars, the Crow supported the U.S. military and tried to work with white settlers, only to be forced to cede much of their land and live on a reservation like all of the other tribes. The WYO is what it looks like when communities put in the work to build mutual respect instead of trying to score cheap political points against each other.

“We’re a proud, patriotic community. Those values are reflected in rodeo. It honors our Western culture and Indian culture as well,” said Tom Ringley, emeritus member of the WYO Board of Directors and author of Rodeo Time in Sheridan Wyo, a history of the WYO Rodeo.

Planning for the WYO is an all-volunteer, year-round effort that culminates in Rodeo Week. In addition to the four nights of rodeo performances, you can grab a bite at the Kiwanis club pancake breakfast fundraiser, run in the Sneakers & Spurs 5K, or just sit in the shade on Main Street and watch the Rodeo Parade. After that, you might check out the First People’s Pow Wow.

Which is to say the rodeo, in Sheridan and elsewhere, is an awfully social event powered by community effort. It is what building social capital looks like. But while the cultural component of the rodeo is every bit as important as the athletic, modern rodeo is still a professional sport.

The WYO is part of the Mountain States Circuit of the Pro Rodeo Cowboy Association. The Pro Rodeo Cowboy Association sanctions competitions in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Brazil. Like other professional athletes, rodeo cowboys have often competed on rodeo teams in high school and college. Those who qualify travel the various circuits in an attempt to accrue enough points in the rankings to compete in the National Finals Rodeo each December. The finals rodeo, held in Las Vegas, advertises a $10 million purse. No one’s making LeBron James money, but the top competitors in each division do alright. According to the Pro Rodeo Cowboy Association, over 100 cowboys earn at least $1 million.

Although professional rodeo is a nationwide sport, it’s incredibly decentralized. Many rodeo events, such as the WYO (now in its 89th year), existed long before the Pro Rodeo Cowboy Association. And many depend on the involvement of volunteers.

“The WYO Board of Directors has always been unpaid volunteers, the sponsors are in the community, and the fans think of it as their rodeo,” says Ringley. “It’s all done by volunteers. That’s not just Sheridan. Cheyenne’s Frontier Days has a huge cadre of volunteers. I can’t imagine any of them could exist without a huge contingent of volunteers helping them out.”

By contrast, how many volunteers do you think turn out for the average NFL game?

Rodeo probably isn’t what Yuval Levin had in mind when he wrote about reinvigorating the “middle layers” of society in his 2017 book, The Fractured Republic, but it’s exactly the sort of thing he meant. The strength of rodeo, and part of its appeal, is that it is an emergent phenomenon rooted in local communities. Connecting people through a shared bond is what sports are supposed to do. Rodeo still does.

Steve Stampley is a former congressional aide and campaign manager. He served as an Air Force pilot in Iraq and Afghanistan.