Recently I was fortunate enough to attend the Professional Bull Riders, Inc. (PBR) World Finals here in Las Vegas. The PBR World Finals have been held here for over 20 years, and next year they will move to the new Las Vegas Arena.

As expected, J.B. Mauney of Mooresville, North Carolina was crowned PBR’s 2015 World Champion despite skipping his final rides due to injuries. Mauney has been unofficially dubbed the “Six Million Dollar Man” by becoming the richest athlete in PBR history with career earnings of over $6,708,492.

Cooper Davis, 2015’s PBR Rookie of the Year runner-up from Jasper, Texas, took advantage of Mauney’s absence at Sunday’s final to win the event title, taking home a $250,000 bonus for winning the six-round event.

I have casually followed the PBR on television for the past few years, but this was my first time ever attending a PBR World Finals. I was impressed by the level of production and all-around entertainment value the PBR provides. PBR channels its western heritage and packages it into a sleek, modern sports league that is exciting for the entire family. The initial introductions of the riders featured fire, smoke, fireworks, lasers, and blaring rock music. Likewise, riders emerge from their chutes amidst the booming sounds of rock and roll. It’s equal parts theater, rock concert, and sporting event. Although the rides themselves are their own 8 second melodramas, PBR gives the entire performance a professional touch that puts the all-around entertainment experience in the same realm as other professional sports.

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Unlike other professional sports, however, I was pleasantly surprised when the opening of each round began with a prayer. I grew up playing high school football at a Catholic school, where prayer was an important part of the pre-game ritual. Sadly, public prayer is becoming less and less common these days for a variety of reasons.

Many have cited the 1962 Supreme Court case of Engel v. Vital, 370 U.S. 421 (1962) as the catalyst for the decline in public prayer. In Engel, the Court held that prayer in public schools was unconstitutional because it is “wholly inconsistent with the Establishment Clause”. Although Engel and its progeny deal specifically with the issue of prayer in government institutions (mainly schools), there are many who decry the Engel case as the beginning of a societal shift in our country away from public prayer anywhere. I’ll defer to other writers’ opinions on that issue, but I mention Engel only to note that in recent years it has become rarer indeed that one hears public prayers anymore. Prayer at public sporting events is nothing new, of course. Most baseball teams began singing “God Bless America” during the 7th inning stretch in the wake of 9/11, and now this song has become a recent addition to the rich tradition of America’s pastime. But there is something refreshing about a brief moment of public prayer and reflection just before a sporting event. Former Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, writing for the Court in the Engel case, described prayer as “a solemn avowal of divine faith and supplication for the blessings of the Almighty”. It’s a moment where fans and athletes, regardless of your religious beliefs (or non-beliefs), can simply take a moment to wish the best for a small group of athletes partaking in a risky sport. And bull riding is certainly a risky sport. PBR realizes the dangers inherent in sitting atop a kicking 2,000 pound animal with nothing to protect your head other than a felt hat. That is why the PBR instituted a policy in 2013 mandating that helmets are required for all new riders turning 18 on or after October 15, 2012.

I was also surprised at the cultural diversity of both the riders and the attendees. As I noted in my previous post, some of the top bull riders in the world are from Brazil, including 2014 World Champion Silvano Alves. In fact, Brazilian riders won the World Championship in 2014, 2010, 2008, 2006, 2002, 2001, and 1994. There was also an Australian World Champion, Troy Dunn, in 1998. One of the most promising young talents in the PBR is Neil Holmes, an African-American cowboy who has been the subject of a Huffington Post feature wherein he notes that “there have always been African American cowboys throughout the history of rodeo and the western culture”. I’m a history buff so I’m an automatic fan of any athlete who cites to history and culture. (In other words, Neil Holmes is probably my new favorite athlete). So if you still think that bull riding is solely the purview of white guys from Oklahoma named Cody, then you clearly haven’t been paying attention to the PBR lately.

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Neil Holmes in the chute at the 2015 PBR World Finals.

Holmes’ reference to PBR’s cowboy and western roots is an apt one. Noted scholar and author Marshall Fishwick once referred to the cowboy as “America’s Contribution to the World’s Mythology”, and PBR definitely draws upon this history with the riders donning flashy chaps, spurs, and other cowboy accoutrements while they ride. There is also a rich history of reverence for bulls as animals and athletes going back to ancient times, such as the Minoan civilization and the Roman cult of Mithras. Even Ernest Hemingway’s masterpiece The Sun Also Rises revolves around the bull festivals of Pamplona and uses bulls and steers as metaphors for the emotions and physical limitations of its dysfunctional characters. So there is a primal excitement to seeing a 2,000 pound bull in the ring, knowing that we see this bull in all its glory the same way our ancestors did. That is why even the bulls themselves are stars in the PBR, as evidenced by fanfare surrounding the 2014 retirement of legendary bull “Bushwacker”.

The PBR World Finals are by no means simply a spectator sport but an all-around interactive experience for fans. During the PBR World Finals, the South Point Hotel and Casino was home to the “Tyson Fan Zone.” Admission to the fan zone was free and included stages for live entertainment, “meet and greets” with the rodeo contestants, and shopping at the Fan Zone Western Gift Expo. There were also interactive opportunities from PBR sponsors such as Ford Trucks, Jack Daniel’s, and Monster Energy Drink as well as daily bull riding competitions and activities from American Bucking Bull, Inc. (ABBI).

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That’s not to say that the PBR Finals weren’t without their share of drama. While I was shooting pictures of his ride, Neil Holmes took a nasty hit to the head that ultimately resulted in a concussion. Even Mauney, en route to a World Chamionship, sprained the left sternoclavicular joint of his riding arm and will probably require months of intensive rehabilitation before the 2016 season kicks off at Chicago’s Allstate Arena on January 9th.

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Neil Holmes just prior to his injury. (Note-this is what happens when you try to capture a bull rider on an iPhone)

In another moment of high drama, 2010 PBR world champion Renato Nunes announced his retirement during Saturday’s round. Nunes lasted just 1.69 seconds atop the bull “Gangsters Wildside” before informing PBR officials of his decision. With his family looking on from the audience, the event was brought to a momentary halt while PBR officials gave Nunes an impromptu farewell. Such is the nature of a sport as extreme as bull riding. When it’s time to ride, you ride. But, just as in life, there is eventually going to be a time when you need to get off the bull. For Nunes, the time was right at the 2015 PBR World Finals.

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