Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Over Thanksgiving, I read Friday Night Lights, H.G. Bissinger's chronicle of a high-school football season in football-obsessed Odessa, Texas. I haven't seen the movie, and now I'm intrigued, because I can't imagine that Hollywood would make a sports movie as grim as this book. I'm not sure whether Bissinger set out to write an indictment of American sports culture, the Texas educational system, or red state "moral values," but that's how this book came off to me.

Bissinger's Odessa is a town that values football vastly more than academics: the high-school English department has a budget of $5000 for supplies, Xeroxing, books, etc., but the school spends $20,000 to charter a jet to fly the football team to a single regular-season game. The so-called "U.S. history teacher," who is really an assistant football coach, plants his students in front of a video of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid so he can go to his office and do his real work, reviewing plays for an upcoming game. It goes without saying that nobody expects football players to do any schoolwork, even though none of these kids can expect a career in football.

Odessa is also shockingly, horrifyingly racist. Bissinger recognizes that girls are disadvantaged in all sorts of ways at Permian High, the school he profiles, and he hints at an ugly, violent strain of homophobia. But since this is a book about an all-male football team, and none of the players or coaches gave any indication of being gay, those issues stay in the background. Since several of the players are black or Latino, racism gets a lot more attention. The mostly-white backers of the football team blame Permian's poor academic performance not on their own skewed priorities, but on racial integration, something they managed to stave off until 1983. (That's not a typo. 1983.) They eventually welcomed integration, though, once they realized that the city's black community might provide some gifted football players. If football obsession trumps racism, however, it certainly doesn't overcome it. Black and Latino football players are embraced as long as they play well, but if they are injured or lose their touch, they are demoted to the same status as all other racial outsiders. This is most obvious in the story of James "Boobie" Miles, a gifted running back whose hopes for the pros are ended by a knee injury. Bissinger tells it thusly:

On other occasions, some whites offered another suggestion for Boobie's life if he no longer had football: just do to him what a trainer did to a horse that had pulled up lame at the track, just take out a gun and shoot him to put him out of the misery of a life that no longer had any value.

"What would Boobie be without football?" echoed a Permian coach when asked the question one day. The answer was obvious, as clear as night and day, black and white in Odessa Texas, and he responded without the slightest hesitation.

"A big ol' dumb nigger."

Lovely, that. I wish Bissinger had the guts to tell us which coach.

The thing is, none of the players really seems to benefit from playing big-time high school football. None of them ends up in the pros. The guys who get college scholarships mostly fail to graduate. Football doesn't seem to provide opportunities for run-of-the-mill excellent high school players, and it doesn't seem to build character in ways that serve them later in life. The main beneficiaries seem to be the fans and boosters, for whom Permian football provides an identity and a social life. For a recovering high-school nerd like myself, conditioned to resent the jocks who ruled my school, it's a little sobering to realize that those kids might have been as exploited as they were unfairly privileged.

Anyway, it's not a perfect book. The writing is pretty awful, with lots of dramatic repetition and overwrought metaphors. But it's an interesting glimpse into some really sick aspects of American society.

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