Brian Phillips files a dispatch from the National Finals Rodeo, held in Vegas since 1985:
Although it's still plenty exciting, watching rodeo on TV turns out to be less exciting than watching it live. You lose the sense of animals' sheer mass, the interplay of weight and speed. You know how the camera adds 10 pounds to a person? It subtracts 500 pounds from a bull.
Still, there are things it's delightful to notice in close-up: the way the bareback riders' hats go flying off Willie Mays–style, the way the handlers hoist themselves up over the yellow fences when one of the animals comes charging in close. There's also more visible violence on TV. A clown takes a blunt horn right in the face during the bull riding, and you can see the blood pouring out of his nose.
There's (obviously) a whole animal-welfare case that exists against the rodeo, which basically says Why should a calf be slammed to the ground and hogtied for your entertainment? I had a cheeseburger for lunch, so I'm aware that there are layers here. But the case seems stronger when you're watching on TV. The bulls are genuinely tormented. Maybe it's an acceptable level of suffering, I don't know; there are safeguards. But whatever counts as a happy eight seconds for a bull, it is not this.
(Photo: Herbert Theriot throws a loop around a calf during the eighth performance of the National Finals Rodeo on December 12th 1998 in Las Vegas, NV. By John Gurzinski /AFP/Getty Images)