The last few months have been a lot of fun, team ropers needed something new to argue about and talking about crossfire has provided a little spark. It was just a coincidence that Bob Feist's wrap up article on the WNFR in his Ropers Sports News arrived at the same time that that the 2004 USTRC rule books hit the mailboxes. Spin To Win asked me to air this one out a little, which I agreed to do. I don't think the USTRC rule change is as big a deal as everyone has made out, still it raises a few questions that I will pose at the end of this commentary. These questions aren't meant to disagree with the rule change, I think they are legitimate questions for everyone.
In the new rule book ropers were discovering that the USTRC had legalized crossfiring. To be more specific, "the steers head merely needs to be turned." Meanwhile, Bob Feist's article commented on the Thomas and Mack set up and how he felt that crossfire should be allowed at the finals. In that same article Bob said, "We used to allow crossfiring at the BFI but it was eliminated because many of the ropers did not know how to execute it properly so it made for very poor watching, plus people knew it couldn't be done anywhere else so why here."
The funny thing about listening to or reading the chat line discussions on crossfire is how many younger ropers don't know that much about it and how many older ropers seem to believe they know it all. The young guys think crossfire is just a pretty little perfect side switch, when actually it is a little more than that. A true crossfire is pretty ugly. The header widens to rope the horns, while the heeler falls in directly behind the steer. When the header bends the steer's head, the heeler ropes the feet, the header kind of runs by the steer. The amount and ferocity of the yank on the steer depends on how wide the header roped or how wide he became after he roped.
The "mature" guys that winter in Arizona, regardless of what region they are from, think they know the exact guy that caused the rule change. One said, " I saw Frank Matthews kill a steer at Redmond, and I knew they were going to ban it." Another said, "Mike Beers caused it." Some that watched 11 year-old Sterling Price and 12-year-old Wes Smith whip the entire PRCA pack at the OS Ranch Roping in the early 1970s claimed that was what ended crossfire. Others claimed Rickey Green caused the crossfire ban. Rickey was a wild man with the crossfire and at one point won five rounds at the NFR and took five no-times in the same finals. He was also infamous for missing on a crossfire at the BFI while leading the average on three. But no, those guys were only part of the reason for the ban.
Jackpots, junior rodeos, amateurs, high school rodeo, NIRA, everyone followed the crossfire ban of the PRCA. The PRCA team roping director at the time of the ban was Dick Yates. Dick discussed the matter with a lot of his fellow team ropers and the majority of professional ropers at that time agreed that it was in the best interest of professional rodeo and team roping to restrict crossfire. I visited with Dick about it recently and here are some of his comments:
"At that time there were only a half dozen guys that could do it consistently, we felt it was going to run off some of our teams, but we were more worried about the rodeo fans. With a lot of ropers trying to crossfire you might have a performance with two catches and 10 misses. We didn't want team roping to become the event where fans took their bathroom break. As the team roping director I wanted to do the right thing for the sport, but on the other hand J.D. was one of the half dozen heelers that could consistently crossfire a steer. We won Spanish Forks that year with a crossfire and there wasn't anyone within two seconds of us. In the end I think I was leaning toward being against crossfire, because of the horsemanship issue. You didn't need much of a heel horse to fall in behind the steer and stop just a little. Head horses didn't need much of a move, the heeler was going to yank you straight and a good facing horse didn't help much. A crossfire will throw some slack into the rope so headers were hitting the end of the rope harder. I felt like horsemanship and roping skills were heading in the wrong direction."
With that simple statement from the guy that had the vote, history on the PRCA decision was maybe a little simpler than folks believe. Which brings us to today. Roping on a basketball court with one hop to the wall on the most watched rodeo in the world may indeed lead to an exception to the rule in the professional world. The problem is that although PRCA set the initial rule for rodeo, times have changed and pro roping is miniscule in size and range to the recreational roping market. What happens at the NFR has no bearing on you and I. In the real world recreational roping rules (99.8%), which make the USTRC rule change much bigger and maybe just a little bewildering.
Back in 1990 I had no historical perspective on crossfire when it became clear that USTRC would need a crossfire rule. We started having problems immediately with the Open and #12 (pro-am). We were the new kids on the block and let's just say that the boys with the big classifications were giving our flaggers a good testing. I am not too sure that the local amateur rodeo heelers didn't try us quite a bit more than the PRCA heelers. "Ridin' High" was the thing to do, and heaven forbid if we didn't give a rerun for a heeler that got a little too high and set up a steer. All the while those youngsters 25 and under were watching the pros and whether they could rope two feet or not, they left the box with the steer, rode high shape, pushed the steer into the left fence and no matter where or how the steer was turned, threw on the first hop. They could ruin a pen of fresh cattle faster than you could unload them off the truck. As for us, we really had no concern for the guy that could rope one steer fast, we wanted to promote competitions where ropers that could rope four steers would get all the money. We saw little growth potential in promoting speed roping. We felt that long averages would ultimately promote the sport and competition. The heeling barrier backed heelers off the high shape but crossfire had not been addressed. We had some pretty heavy arguments all over the country before we finally decided to sit down and figure out a crossfire rule.
At that point in time, I relied heavily on the advice I was getting from Hugh Chambliss when it came to rules. Hugh's experience heading the PRCA officials for a number of years made him well versed in the dilemma involving crossfire. His advice was simple, "You have two choices, either put both ropers in the same box and let the first roper to the steer rope, or make the heeler wait until the steer is turned and in-tow. Anything in-between is a flagger's call. At the beginning of the turn you have to decide 'is the head bent,' 'has the body changed directions' or is the 'animal under control?' Depending on which of these criteria you want to use, and in a split second also determine, 'when the loop was released' or 'when the rope hit the ground' depending on which one of those two criteria you want to follow. There is no difference between making a call at the beginning of the turn or the end of the turn (was he in tow, or was there side action); it is a split-second subjective decision. If you make it a judgment call, then you will always have an argument. If you do not allow any side action of the steer (switch), then the argument is over."
With such clear alternatives, and such a clear objective, I decided to make the rule fit the majority of the situations, and the majority of ropers. We felt it was in the best interest of long average roping, horsemanship and the sport, to gear our rule to recreational ropers and away from crossfire and the pros. Therefore, we followed Hugh's advice and the steer had to be turned and in-tow before ropers could release their ropes. Within two years the arguments over crossfire calls were only occasional. Which brings us back to the reason for the USTRC rule change. The official response from the USTRC is that the rule change would relieve the judgment on the flaggers. Quote, "besides, if it doesn't work out, we'll switch it back." Well, I really had hoped they would give me a more inventive response like, "we think the heel barrier solved 75 percent of the problem and the other 25 percent is not worth arguing about," but I don't guess that was the answer.
While talking about crossfire is fun, it may not drastically alter the outcome of many ropings. I have been watching all the spring ropings and ropers that are out of the average use it for go-round throws and some distant short round teams use it attempting to move up. Clearly a lot of ropers recognize crossfire as a low percentage throw, but second and most important, there is a huge problem with learning a crossfire throw if you are not a rodeo cowboy.
Lets face it, crossfiring is faster than roping cattle correctly. If it weren't faster why would people want to take a riskier throw? People who can do it consistently will have advantage over those that can't. Anytime there is a clear advantage someone's classification will go up. This in itself is not a bad thing, until they go to another jackpot where the contractor owns his own cattle, and let me assure you they will not allow crossfire. A handicap acquired by crossfiring could pose a major obstacle to their roping future. I can guarantee you that if a team in a short round moves up five to ten calls on a crossfire throw, 10 to 20 ropers will be casting very specific on-line ballots. Ropers that were whipped by the crossfire are going to assist the guy with the trick shot right into a trap. And don't kid yourself, it isn't a matter of being a smart or stupid roper, there are plenty of ropers that will place occasionally looking "cool" at the top of their priority list. Why? Because of their age and just because they can't resist.
I feel the crossfire problem all but disappeared ten years ago with the original rule placement, but obviously the basis for this entire discussion proves that my opinion is not unanimous. If you walk up to any flagger and ask them how often they have to make a crossfire call, generally you will hear the range of a few hundred in upper divisions to every thousand calls in lower number ropings. Ask any flagger what the hardest judgment call is, and generally they mention the difficulty in determining how straight the horses are and how tight the ropes should be before dropping the flag. When I heard that I thought about all the times I have seen the crowd yell at a flagger to GIVE that poor roper with the no-facing head horse a flag. If that header is a little kid or a women then double the sound level. These guys are paid to be consistent, and under some arena conditions and at various ability levels, it is sure difficult to figure that problem out. Say what you want about no-face, this is the area where the flagger needs a prayer and a solution. How many times at a roping will you see this problem versus a crossfire call? What's the ratio?
The general rule of thumb of roping associations has been to pass rules 1) That help with a problem, 2) That help with an anticipated problem, 3) That helps the sport of team roping, and 4) Where it makes economic sense. Answering this criteria one by one; 1) It doesn't appear a lot of flaggers are having a lot of problems with a lot of crossfiring; 2) this number is not applicable; 3) If the majority of your customers are low number ropers, shouldn't you be promoting consistency?; 4) Crossfiring promotes misses but there aren't enough crossfire attempts to buy hamburgers for the chute crew, so no economic gain. Not that legalizing crossfire is that big a deal, but tell me again, why was this done?