The Rodeo Cowboy as an American Icon: The Perceived Social and Cultural Significance

By Pearson, Demetrius W.; Haney, C. Allen | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

The Rodeo Cowboy as an American Icon: The Perceived Social and Cultural Significance


Pearson, Demetrius W., Haney, C. Allen, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Rodeo in North America is arguably one of the fastest growing and most dangerous "de facto" contact sport forms in contemporary society. The status of rodeo as a "legitimate" athletic contest has been questioned by sports purists. However, rodeo adheres to the requisite elements detailed by J. J. Coakley (20) for any sport form: physical prowess, institutionalized competition, and intrinsic and extrinsic participant motivation. In addition, rodeo rests upon rich cultural tradition, history, and ritualistic lore quite possibly unrivaled in modern sports. Other than baseball, no sport in the United States appears to epitomize American values, mores, and lifestyles as does rodeo (Pearson and Haney 308). As a result of these cultural staples, rodeo in many respects symbolizes a purer, more equitable and individualized sport form.

The perception of economic gain through solo, self-supported competition is limited to rodeo and a few other sports such as boxing, golf, bowling, tennis, and horse racing. Yet, economic gain through participation appears plausible for the novice rodeo athlete as well as the veteran. Rodeo competitors may view themselves within the sport as entrepreneurs whose fortunes rest squarely upon their own skills and abilities, and the "luck of the draw." This is partly due to the rather loosely structured design of the sport, which, while now big business replete with sanctioning bodies and professional associations, still remains relatively open and unregulated (e.g., protective equipment, standardized facilities, etc.). While there are strict rules governing the competition at a general level, few rules and regulations dictate the actions of the individual competitors. This loose structure provides for variable formal and informal training mechanisms, which invariably impacts skill level, visibility, participation, and ultimately income. It has been suggested that the image of the American cowboy is analogous to the "American way," in that success can be achieved through rugged individualism and aggressive behavior (Pinsker 794).

Unlike the past, when rodeo was considered a western sport and lifestyle, currently rodeo and its supporters can be found nationally in rural and urban communities in the United States as well as internationally (e.g., Canada, Australia, and Brazil). Fans of the sport are far more diverse than in the past with respect to socioeconomic status, ethnicity, level of education, and geographical residence (Daneshvary, Schwer, and Rickman 90; Eitzen and Sage 305; Schlosberg 47). Such is also the case for rodeo cowboys.

Rodeo Cowboy As Athlete and Sport Icon

Rodeo as a sport form has always been shrouded in the mystique of the "Old West," a dimension which has had both inhibiting effects in the past and beneficial outcomes on its present marketability. Its heightened popularity and appeal is evident through its increasing corporate sponsorships, network affiliations and coverage, licensing contracts, and spectator appeal. No longer are rodeo cowboys merely the epitome of athleticism in small southwestern agrarian communities and midwestern ranching environs; at present, their allure extends much farther. The increased popularity is also evident in popular culture, which has afforded the rodeo cowboy celebrity status. This revered status within American culture is evident through recent movie productions (My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys, 1991; Painted Hero, 1995; 8 Seconds, 1994), country and western music, corporate advertising, contemporary fashion trends, art and literature depictions, and halls of fame.

"Being an athlete means that one willingly confronts and overcomes the fear and the challenge of competition, and accepts the increasing risk of failure and injury as one moves to higher levels of performance" (Coakley 153). Research pertaining to the incidence of injury in rodeo has suggested that the rate of injury at the collegiate level far exceeded college football, and that the potential for injury was as high as 89 percent for collegiate rodeo athletes (Meyers et al.

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