Source: Billings Gazette
CASPER, Wyo. — The once steadfast coupling of chewing tobacco and the collegiate cowboy extravaganza is no more. There are no Copenhagen banners, there are no Skoal flags. There are no free samples.
For the first time in nearly four decades, smokeless tobacco has no hand in sponsoring the College National Finals Rodeo.
“It’s a tremendous and tragic loss to college rodeo,” National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association Commissioner Roger Walters said during the weeklong 2011 CNFR, which ended Saturday night at the Casper Events Center. “Who lost? Our students.”
For 37 years, U.S. Smokeless Tobacco gave hundreds of thousands of dollars in the form of scholarships to college rodeo. While the presence of the company’s banners and flags at the CNFR ceased in 2009, the company — acquired by Altria that same year — continued giving scholarship money through last year.
Walters said the company, in a time of economic hardship, gave roughly $250,000 in scholarships each year to college rodeo performers. The sponsorship pullout by the company, he said, constituted an 80 to 85 percent loss in money available for the performers.
“I understand the reasons (for their departure), but in the long run, it hurts our students,” he said. “And that’s what this rodeo is for, first and foremost.”
Health officials, however, applauded the move.
“It is never a good idea to promote a product that is a deadly killer,” said Niki Mueller, the program director of Wyoming Through With Chew. “Rodeo is a family event, and the contestants are at an age that the industry likes to target. The younger the target, the longer they are a customer.”
Smokeless tobacco is sold as moist snuff and is most commonly chewed by the user. While it’s not as lethal as cigarette smoking, the levels of nicotine in smokeless tobacco can be more addictive.
In Wyoming, about 25 percent of high school boys and 7 percent of high school girls use some form of the product, Mueller said.
The loss of the smokeless tobacco company’s sponsorship has not affected the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association’s events, Walter said, because the company’s funding came in the form of scholarships.
“Financially, we’re as well off as we were three years ago,” he said. “It did not hurt college rodeo. It hurt our student-athletes.”
Walters, who has presided over the CNFR for three years, said roughly 3,500 students from colleges across the United States are members of the NIRA. To join, a student must have passed at least 24 hours of college courses with at least a 2.0 overall grade-point average.
There is also a $255 membership fee, $127 of which goes toward the student’s insurance.
The association has about 110 events annually, as well as the CNFR, which alone costs roughly $500,000 to put on. Those events are funded by sponsors, both nationally and locally.
“Without sponsorship money, college rodeo, the CNFR, would not be functional,” Walter said. “Sponsorship is what makes it happen.”
The commissioner stressed that the smokeless tobacco company’s scholarship recipients had the money given to their schools in their names. The only stipulation, he said, was that the recipient be at least 18 years old.
Jason Mincer, government relations director with the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network in Wyoming, said that while the company may not have put any requirements in terms of its products on recipients, “case after case of rolls” of free smokeless tobacco were made available.
“In my mind, it is a pretty shady thing to do for a lot of reasons,” Mincer said.
Because college rodeo is a club sport not sanctioned by the NCAA, cowboys and cowgirls are free to compete professionally at the same time, and many do. Vernon College bareback and saddle bronc rider JR Vezain of Cowley, who competed in last week’s CNFR, currently ranks 12th in bareback riding in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.
College rodeo officials have added incentive to make up for the loss in scholarship funding, as some top contestants could elect to turn pro full time if the college level is no longer lucrative.
“That’s definitely a consideration,” Walters said. “It’s something we knew would be a possibility, but we’re trying to overcome that.”
Mincer said he understands the hit students have taken in the form of available scholarship money, but he doesn’t believe that a “$1,000 or $5,000 scholarship offsets the onset of mouth cancer.”
To date, Walters said he has made more than 30 presentations to potential sponsors in the hopes of replacing the loss of scholarships.
“Have I replaced it?” he said. “The answer is no.”
Mueller, whose agency works to change the social norms and acceptance of tobacco use in Wyoming, said she also understands Walters’ concern for the student-athletes.
“The loss of the sponsor is awful,” she said. “It really does put this rodeo and other rodeos that have been affected by Altria dropping their sponsorships in a difficult position. Hopefully, a healthy sponsor will step up.”
“Obviously, I’d like to see those scholarships be replaced by a sponsor that would have a more positive impact on our students,” he said.
Walters said he doesn’t know when or if the rodeo will replace the scholarship possibilities lost when smokeless tobacco pulled out.
“When you lose $250,000 that is supposed to be for higher education,” he said, “it’s not easily replaced.”
This news story was resourced by the Oral Cancer Foundation, and vetted for appropriateness and accuracy.