National High School Rodeo loses top sponsor after probe affirms abuse

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2007:
SPRINGFIELD–“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
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 quite 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 Sanga-mon
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
“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
“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, “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
Acknowledged the IPRA web site, “A small
group of investors have signed an agreement to
purchase the IPRA,” effective on February 26,
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,
while self-critical appraisals of how rodeos have
been covered have emerged even in such
traditional rodeo strongholds as San Antonio,
“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 rodeosŠThere is one way to mitigate
the public relations damage: end the abuse, so
it can’t be videotaped.”

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