The “U.S. Border Patrol Safety Man,” as the clown calls him, is named Jared, and “this guy right here is a cowboy.”
Flint Rasmussen is the Professional Bull Riders’ long-tenured official rodeo performer, and he’s in his usual costume: a smear of clown makeup, broad white hat, a middle-aged paunch holding up neon Cooper Tire-branded athletic shorts. Jared, the handsome Safety Man, trots around the dirt covering Madison Square Garden’s arena on a horse, half-heartedly swinging a lasso. We’re between eight-second sprints of watching boys fall off of animals one-handed, and the two guys are making hammy small talk about Jared’s love life. If one of the $500,000 bulls goes rogue, I gather, it’s the U.S. Border Patrol Safety Man’s job to capture it.
But that appears unlikely, as most of these lovingly bred bulls are trained well enough to buck a rider and bolt straight back into the pen. These are fantastically professional pieces of livestock, scored along with the athletes who ride them. One year, a rider threw his face mask at a bull in frustration and had to apologize on live TV, as well as hand over a $7,500 dollar fine.
You’ll hear a lot about cowboys like Jared at a Professional Bull Riders’ event. According to Flint, cowboys are tough, but “who am I kidding, we’re not honest.” (This in reference, again, to Jared’s dating habits.) During the championship round, a square-jawed rider named Stormy Wing—apparently his real name—is stunned for nearly a minute by a swift stomp to the head. When he winks into the camera, Flint calls it “the trademark of being a cowboy.” And during a video promotion spot last year, Flint, with clown makeup wiped clean, spoke of hoping to “share cowboy values across the country.” Those values included respect for, among other things, the police and the forefathers and the flag.
Cowboy values are also aligned, obliquely, with the values of the Border Patrol, the “official federal law enforcement officers of the professional bull riders,” though riding a bull for sport and glory was a habit Texans picked up from Mexican ranch-hands in the late 19th century, and it could be argued that if there had been mounted guards enforcing borders in those days these bull riders would be going without their prize money.
Professional Bull Rider, Inc. events descended from rodeos, but they’re more like an extreme sport. In the ‘90s a coalition of bull riders, fed up with getting all of the rodeo spotlight but none of the money, incorporated the PBR, swapping livestock demonstrations for pyrotechnics. Now there are 300 PBR events around the world; the sport’s top athletes—most from the U.S, Australia, and Brazil—gross several million dollars before they turn 30. They call it “the toughest sport on dirt.”
Since then, there’s been numerous opportunities for cowboy-adjacent brand deals. There are Wrangler jeans-branded stress balls shot into the crowd. A middle-aged woman in an eggplant-colored turtleneck wins a drill set during a dance contest. Monster Energy Drink girls stalk the halls of the Garden in leather belly shirts. Obviously, Hooters is also here.
And since 2008, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol has been here, too, touring the country with the energy drink-fueled pseudo-rodeo, taking a cut of select merch sales for the Border Patrol Foundation, which gives money to the families of those killed on-duty. A handful of Border agents are stuffed into their uniforms ringside, shooting photos with their phones; a line of olive-green BP officers were present for the national anthem and a kick-off prayer.
Which is also why Jared the U.S. Border Patrol Safety Man is here, ready at any moment to lasso an errant bull.
Recently, defending its decision to award a $287 million contract to an outside staffing firm to help it recruit 5,000 additional Customs and Border Patrol agents—that’s roughly $40,000 per head—the CBP summarized the reason it’s been difficult to find more recruits. For one, there have been “changing generational values,” a CBP spokesman told the San Diego Tribune; for another, state-level legalization of marijuana has made it harder to find people who’ll pass a drug test. “A growing distrust of law enforcement” had also, in CBP’s estimation, contributed to low retention numbers.
It’s unclear whether cowboy values dictate that you say no to drugs. However, setting up recruitment booths at an event estimating valor with flag-waving, jolts of wild adrenaline, and a cowboy-hat bobblehead version of the American West does make some intuitive sense.
Hinging Border Patrol recruitment on images of virility and grit has been part of the program for about a decade: Most material advertising the Border Patrol contains rapid-fire sequences of horses and dirtbikes, an echo of the lonely rural enforcer more like a sheriff than a bureaucratic paper-pusher. The partnership between the Professional Bull Riders and Border Patrol dates back to the last hiring spree, mandated by the Bush Administration. The agency also sponsored a NASCAR team and aired ads during Dallas Cowboys games around the same time.
Perhaps the true cowboy essence would be more self-evident in another venue. But even with the dust curling up from the ring and the staccato country music samples and the ribboned leather of the riders’ chaps jerking along with the bulls, this event is unrecognizable from the muddy rodeos I went to in Kentucky as a kid. One of the riders, I find out later, is wearing chaps made from fabric from Louis Vuitton.
And I find it very hard to imagine anyone looking less like a cowboy than Donald Trump, Jr., who is here, cozying up to the ring in some sort of tactical, lumpy green fleece. This is, as Flint the Clown says when he shouts out Don and his kids, an “extremely patriotic sport,” and Don is met with polite applause.
Shorty Gorham, a solid blond boy with vaguely unfocused eyes, is regularly contracted as part of the floor team that herds the bulls away once they’ve thrown their cargo, and he attracted the Trumps when he facilitated a petition for all bull riders to stand at attention for the national anthem. It was a counter-protest completely on-brand for a guy who hunts cougars and bobcats when he isn’t circling a 2,000-pound animal in front of thousands of fans—and a professional sports circuit that has been known to feature special forces agents rappelling from the ceiling into an arena ringed with fire.
Aligning the Border Patrol with a multi-million-dollar extreme sporting event for people who appreciate—if who don’t exactly experience—the shrinking landscape of ranchers and family farms is perhaps appropriate, considering that while the Trump administration is calling for more agents, border crossings are in fact down. Or that drones will likely play a larger role in policing America’s landlocked borders than cowpokes on horses.
And the deal with the PBR seems, by now, to be as much about advocacy and myth-making as much as straight-up recruitment; there weren’t a whole lot of New Yorkers stopping by the CBP tables set up in the garden, though when the bagpipe band that usually commemorates fallen agents started up a drunk guy in the beer line yelled, “One more!” from under his very wide hat. One of the players soberly told me that two agents in the past year had “paid the ultimate price.” Then they packed up the folding table to watch the last rounds of young men getting pummeled off of bucking wild animals in the middle of Manhattan.