A cowboy is made in eight seconds. That’s how long you have to stay on a bull for it to count as a “ride.” Any less than that is a failure. On the best rides, eight seconds doesn’t feel like long enough; on the worst, it’s an eternity. But to get to that feeling, that adrenaline rush of power and success and terror, you first have to make it out of the gates, and Koal Livingston didn’t.
It was an overcast September evening in Fairfax, Virginia, the 22nd stop of the Professional Bull Rider’s (PBR) annual world tour. The world’s top bull riders were gathered in the chutes, taping their hands, spitting dip into Styrofoam cups, adjusting Stetsons. There was a million dollars on the line for the weekend, but Livingston, like all good riders, knew his competition wasn’t in Wranglers. The enemy is always the bull. After slapping his chap-covered legs, Livingston hopped over the railing of the chute where his rival, Outlaw, began to wriggle.
Livingston was almost ready to go — vest Velcroed, helmet on, mouthguard in, hand gripped around the rope — when Outlaw started bucking. From where I stood above the chute, I could see him go down and back. Then the spotter lost his grip on Livingston’s protective vest, and all of a sudden the bull bucked forward, catapulting Livingston headfirst into the chute’s metal wall. When the gate opened, the bull bucked out, but Livingston stayed down. The staff rushed to shield his body from the audience’s view, but I could see his limp legs peeking out from the corner of the enclosure. The cowboys nearest him removed their hats as the sports medicine team came out.
Livingston was out cold for almost a minute before he returned to the bright lights of the stadium and rose to his feet. “I absolutely cannot believe this guy is walkin’ out of this arena,” the announcer said as the crowd applauded. At the Fairfax competition that weekend, 10 of the 35 riders were competing with an injury. Before the event ended, four more would be injured. To make it through a full season of bull riding without an injury would be a miracle, one that almost never happens. Sean Willingham, a veteran of the PBR, told me the next afternoon, “You gotta be prepared. You’re gonna get hurt. You’re not gonna ever not get hurt.”
For the past fifteen years, the United States has been caught in an endless conversation about safety in sports, professional and amateur. Though sports are not necessarily more dangerous now than in the past — in 1905, at least 13 U.S. college football players died from game injuries before the adoption of the forward pass — better science and health care have made us more aware of how the impacts of contact sports destroy our bodies and, over time, degrade our minds.
Football dominates the discussion of the dangers of sports, but every sport is working to become safer. Baseball players have started wearing a plastic glove to protect their hands when they slide into the base. This season, the NHL began stricter enforcement of the slashing penalty to prevent hand injuries; the league also cycles hundreds of thousands of dollars gathered from suspension penalties each year into an emergency fund for players.
But amid this concerted national rush to protect athletes, one sport stands out: bull riding. A bull rider is 10 times more likely to be seriously injured than a football player. One reason is obvious: 2,000-pound bulls have zero interest in injury prevention. Being stepped on by a bull can kill a man, and has. Getting hit with a bull’s horn can fracture 33 facial bones, as it did with a rider named Chase Outlaw this past July. And the bulls are only getting stronger.
“These bulls are bred to buck,” says Justin Cornwell, a stock contractor who brings champion bulls to competitions. “At this level, these bulls are pros. They’re not here to mess around.” Rodeo bulls have been bred to leap and twirl and duck and jump unpredictably—in other words, to win.
Over the past 22 years, the PBR has introduced protective vests and now requires helmets for riders born after 1994. But even those mild safety requirements do not extend to riders outside of PBR arenas, and bull riders are suffering the consequences, with hundreds of accidents recorded just this year alone. There is no comprehensive data on riders injured, and many riders do not even receive treatment for their injuries.
Bull riding is one of the fastest-growing sports in United States — this season alone, more than 19 million people have watched the PBR on CBS — and when you watch it on TV or in the arena, it’s clear that no one wants the sport to be any safer. The danger, the potential for the bull to win in the most grotesque way possible, is part of the appeal. Still, even bull riding is beginning to take part in the national campaign to make every sport safer. It’s unclear, though, how safe it can ever really be.