This past week I took a hell of a spill. It was a nice day and I thought I’d go for my usual walk as way of moving into the writing day. I’ve started playing music on my Blackberry and that is a bad idea, as evidenced by the fact that one moment I was walking across Ogden Street deciding between Coldplay and Sigur Ros and the next I was laid flat out on the corner. A nice guy came up and sat down beside me and asked if I was okay. I shook my head and said, “I don’t know. I just went down. I’m not really sure what happened.” We sat there for a few seconds and then he helped me up and I made my way home to clean up and sit in a pile of ice. The whole way home I played the fall in my head. Two seconds. It probably took me two seconds to look away and up hurting for a week.
Which is to say, I would be a disaster as a Bull Rider. Nobody played football this past Sunday since there’s a week off between the playoffs and the Super Bowl. But lots of sports happened, foremost among them for my money was the 2010 Tampa Invitational on the Professional Bull Riders tour. It’s no joke. Not to me or an ever-increasing fan base or the folks who market the NFL and also the PBR. Fox Sports has started broadcasting bull riding on Sundays alongside their football coverage. It may be seen as small town but anyone who’s been following knows it is big business. More than 100 million viewers watch PBR every year. As opposed to football, bull riding has a global presence, particularly in Mexico and South America. Adriano Moraes, one of the greatest bull riders in the history of the sport, is just one of the many riders from Brazil.
One time, Moraes tore his bicep, had it wrapped and kept riding. Here’s Ty Murray (he’s married to the poet, Jewel) to tell you about the rules:
Bull riding is a sport that functions within the myth of the American heartland but is actually more indicative of the fact that ranching (the root of the sport) is a global tradition upon which this country was built. Like all sports worth watching Pro Bull Riding sits at the uneasy intersection of culture, class and faith. One can learn a lot about the Americas by watching the riders and the crowds. There’s a real different feeling between the majority of events that are held in the south and plains states and the championships in Las Vegas or the New York City Invitational at Madison Square Garden. A lot of the talk of faith gets submerged in the more highly commercial settings. Issues of class aren’t as easily identified. It’s a conscious choice on the part of the promoters. In the most high visibility settings PBR attempts to function with the same degree of obfuscation as the NFL does on most Sundays.
It is the NFL’s quite conscious obscuring of its evangelical roots that allows the decision by CBS to air an ad from the Christian group Focus on Family to seem even remotely surprising. Whereas on most weekends one can decide to take or leave the religious aspect of many of the bull riding events, the NFL keeps its long and deeply held connection to evangelical Christianity in the closet. One only need to scratch slightly below the surface to find groups like the evangelical, Athletes In Action behind the scenes in every locker room in the NFL.
So it should come as no surprise that CBS and the NFL are endorsing a Super Bowl ad in which the mother of Heisman winning quarterback Tim Tebow speaks about her decision to continue a risky pregnancy. Nor should any of us be surprised by the fact that CBS has refused to air the following gay dating site ad:
And I suppose one shouldn’t be surprised by the comments of Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy about gay marriage and his decision to speak at a luncheon hosted by the anti –gay Indiana Family Institute, “I appreciate the stance they're taking, and I embrace that stance. ... IFI is saying what the Lord says. You can take that and make your decision on which way you want to be. I'm on the Lord's side."
And yet. That isn’t the whole story. One of the reasons I love watching Pro Bull Riding is the fact that you get to see all the sides. You see people praying and you see people not praying. You see people without a lot of money and riders who don’t make much either. And in the midst of that you get to see some of the best and bravest athletes you’ll see in your whole life. You get to see one of the smallest minorities in this country: professional athletes. Because if you can pass for more than 4000 yards in the space of an NFL season, you aren’t like pretty much anybody else. If you can rush for more than a thousand yards between the months of September and January there is nothing normal about you. And if you can hold onto a bull for 8 seconds while your bicep is torn, then you may be crazy and you are certainly a freak of nature. There’s a name for people like you. You walk down the street and people turn around and whisper to each other and a lot of times they yell things at you. You can barely eat your dinner in peace when you go out.
I’m not kidding about this. Like professional musicians or great literature or visual art, professional sports is a place where we can see people use immense natural ability and extensive training to do things that most of us can only dream of. Inspiring isn’t even the right word for it but it will do. And many of us look at those people on the screen and imagine ourselves doing something extraordinary. Because these people are not normal. They are different. And they speak to the difference in us that makes us extraordinary.
That’s the heartbreaking thing about the CBS decision. It ignores what is truly great about sports. That they can inspire all of us to take our point of difference and grace and do remarkable things. Take the Indianapolis Chaos and the New Orleans Blaze. Those are the other pro-football teams from the cities playing in the Super Bowl. They’re part of the Women’s Professional Football association (WFA).
And Shylo Hastings is one of the many female bull riders out there:
A lot of us look at those guys on the field and see some part of ourselves. CBS and the corporate heads of the NFL do the sport a disservice by failing to recognize that. All week I’ve been sore from my fall and I’ve been listening to my friend Ty’s band’s song, “Young James Dean.” Tim Tebow had an awfully rough outing at the Senior Bowl and didn’t help the general thought among scouts that he’s not the right kind of man for the NFL. What kind of men are we (even us women)? How open are we willing to be about how complicated and different we are?
Gabrielle Calvocoressi is the author of Apocalyptic Swing (Persea Books. 2009). She lives in Los Angeles.