Friday Night Lights by H. G. Bissinger
I do not understand sports. It took me halfway through watching Rudy to identify Rudy’s devotion to Notre Dame football to my geekier devotions and enjoy the film. (Sean Astin was amazing in it, but there’s neither here nor there.) I guess I just don’t have the sort of competitive streak that sports require. So when I saw Friday Night Lights at a book swap in my student center, I picked it up because I wanted to understand. I still don’t understand sports completely, but I have a better handle on it now.
In Odessa, Texas, football is much more than a game–it’s a way of life. Friday Night Lights follows their favored team, the Permian Panthers, during the 1988 football season, through the highs, the lows, and how a team of teenage boys and their coach deal with the burden of a small town’s hopes and dreams riding on their shoulders.
The impression that Friday Night Lights left me with is a mix of sadness and horror. I felt sadness for these boys whose greatest achievements in life come during high school and horror at the system that abuses and abandons them. Bissinger does take pains to point out, in an afterword, that things are different in Odessa these days (well, circa 2000), possibly due to the publishing of Friday Night Lights and the scrutiny of a nation, but I remain absolutely horrified that things were like this at all. Academics and even politics are too often subordinated to high school football in the minds and hearts of the people of Odessa, and these teenage boys are often judged with the same standards of professional football players–even though they all have academics to contend with and some come from very dysfunctional homes. The Permian fans of Odessa expect only the best from their team–good is not good enough for them, as Bissinger paints them. I was especially horrified by the abuse the Panthers’ rivals, the Carter Cowboys, indulged in. When a prized player fails algebra abysmally (we’re talking a 35 on a test), the Carter community is stirred into action–not to uphold “no pass no play”, but to keep him on the team. It chilled me to the bone to see academics tossed by the wayside for competitive pride and to see these kids’ educations absolutely suffer because of it, especially in light of the fact that football is not really a viable career. One of the most heartbreaking stories is that of Boobie Miles, whose glorious future vanishes when he injures his knee during practice.
In his afterword, Bissinger mentions that he wanted to write something along the line of Hoosiers, where a small town is ultimately united by a love of a certain sport, but what he found was something different and darker. I don’t want to make it sound as if the particular brand of Odessa football circa 1988 is all bad; Bissinger mentions that the football played there is some of the most beautiful and inspirational he’s ever seen. But the rampant racism (the Permian Panthers’ game against the Carter Cowboys essentially boils down to white versus black) and the pressure the community puts on these boys were just too much, and Bissinger felt it would be remiss of him not to include this in his book. As you can imagine, there are some people in Odessa who not happy with him at all.
Odessa circa 1988 is not the greatest place to live. Bissinger mentions that it places on a handful of “worst places to live” lists. Between the horribly dry weather, weirdly high murder rate, and the unpredictable economic booms and busts in this oil town, Odessa earns its accolades. Bissinger spends a few chapters talking about Odessa’s history, from the initial fraud of settlers to the insane spending during economic boom periods. You can definitely see why football is often the only thing going for this community. The status of girls in high school is tied solely to the football team–you can either be a cheerleader, a Pepette (a sort of personal valet assigned to each player), or sleep with a player. Again, the Carter Cowboys top the Permian Panthers in excess; three senior players leave school at lunch for a liaison with a sophomore who takes photos to prove she’s done it and increase her status at school. It’s absolutely mind-boggling how central it appears to be to everything in the community.
I particularly liked how Bissinger structured Friday Night Lights. He opens during a decisive game for the Permian Panthers that highlights each player and the coaches, and the end of the chapter quickly lays to rest any hope that this is a traditional sports book. He then cuts back to the beginning of the season, including chapters that highlight Odessa’s history and culture every so often. These can occasionally drag, but Bissinger changes subject every chapter, so it’s never too glaring. Bissinger’s writing is clear, direct, and free of frills, but he often compares the football players to women in a way I felt a little weird about, especially the bridal comparisons when the boys are suiting up. He’s trying to drive home a point about the vanity of it all, but it doesn’t quite work without feeling a little unfair to the brides and beauty queens he compares them to. Still, it’s a small misstep in a good book.
Bottom line: Friday Night Lights is just as shocking as it was back in 1990, exploring the excesses and problems with a football culture as ingrained of that of Permian football with a clear eye. Definitely worth a read, even if you don’t understand sports like me.
I got this book at a book swap.