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Friday Night Lights : A Town, a Team, and a Dream ()

Mr. Doggett's Suggested Summer Reading for Students

I don't even know how the whole relationship started, but somehow my fraternity (Beta Theta Pi) at Colgate developed a tradition of having a few guys go work on a Geoseismic crew in Texas during our semesters off.  It was decent money; you got minimum but worked 100 hours a week, got $5 a day meal money and $25 cash per day just for showing up (suffice it to say that folks on these crews were not totally reliable employees).  So after we'd completed our Summer term in 1981, several of us headed down to Odessa/Midland to sign on with a Western Geophysical crew.

We had immense trouble locating them because they didn't want other companies knowing where they were, a hangover from oil wildcatting days.  But those difficulties are a whole other story and require an explanation of $500 in mysterious telephone calls charged to the Colgate Radio station.  At any rate, we finally located the crew in Snyder, Texas, Scurry County, Permian Oil Basin.  So we checked into the Snyder East Motel--a genuine fleabag, run, as was every convenience store and fast food place in West Texas, by Indians (subcontinent Indians, not Native Americans).  Within our first few hours in the motel: I had to kill a scorpion that one of the guys found crawling on his bed and thought was a "strange bug"; we flicked from TV channel to TV channel trying to get rid of the weird squiggle at the bottom until we realized it was a tornado warning; and we were perturbed to discover that Network TV was preempted on this Friday night by local High School football.  Actually, we soon learned that High School Football took over the airwaves every Friday night.  We knew we weren't in Central New York any more.

The next day we met our fellow crew members.  Most of them were decent enough folks and a few we really ended up liking, but we were taken aback when one of them asked us if we knew Ken Jones, a black fraternity brother who had worked with them that summer, and when we said yes, he said: "I don't generally like niggers, but that Ken Jones was alright."  Even more disconcerting was listening to the illegal aliens on the crew say, "I may be a Mexican, but at least I'm not a nigger."  That's just not the snappy banter we were used to hearing at one of the nation's finest liberal arts schools.

All of this is by way of introduction to H.G. Bissinger's great account of one year in the life of the Permian Panthers football team in Odessa, TX.  Odessa provided the perfect setting for him to explore a complex set of issues including race, exploitation, community pride, etc., but most of all to examine the centrality of high school sports in the life of a town.  Now we were in Texas when oil prices were booming and everyone was rolling in it, but by the time Bissinger, a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist, got there in 1988, the boom had gone bust and west Texas faced a genuine economic crisis, which only added to the social pressures that he addresses in the book.

The book focuses on a couple of key contradictions: (1) the vaulting ambition and unrealistic dreams of the athletes as opposed to the harsh reality that awaits them; (2) the relative innocence of these kids as opposed to the really cynical and exploitative manipulation of them by coaches, parents, boosters, college recruiters, etc.; and (3) the dependence of the athletic programs in such places upon black athletes, despite cultural racism which does not acknowledge their value as full human beings.  Bissinger intertwines all these threads with the very real community pride and unity that the program brings to a city that is in dire straits.  The end product is a truly great book, not only one of the only great football books ever written, but one that rises far beyond the gridiron to illuminate the problems of school boy athletics in America.

So this review originally ended here, but then I found a couple of delightfully ironic items while looking for links.  First, there's the article below, Author Cancels Trip After Threats in Texas, about how Bissinger was getting death threats so he had to skip Odessa on his book tour.  Way to show the world that the author's wrong and you don't take football too seriously.  Then I found an essay by a University of Minnesota student on the book.  The student's name?  Bobby Jackson.  Yes, the same Bobby Jackson from their great NCAA Final Four basketball team of several years ago.  My interest piqued, I read further.  The essay was posted by the Minnesota Pioneer Planet, as part of their series on the academic scandals that rocked that basketball program, as an example of the classroom work that Golden Gopher players turned in but which was actually done by a supposed tutor.  What can have run through the writer's mind as she wrote about the unhealthy emphasis placed on sports, to the exclusion of all other concerns in the students' lives?   Obviously, the concerns that Bissinger addressed in Friday Night Lights remain just as topical and timely ten years later.


Grade: (A+)


Book-related and General Links:
    -ESSAY: America's Youngest Professionals (H. G. Bissinger, NY Times)
    -PROFILE: ALUMNUS  Buzz Bissinger prays for the city (JOHN McCALLA, U of PA Alumni Magazine)
    -ARTICLE: Author Cancels Trip After Threats in Texas (ROGER COHEN, NY Times)
    -Friday Night Lights 10 Years Later (Odessa American)
    -ARTICLE: It's simple Friday: Drive toward the lights (Al Pickett, Reporter News)
    -Odessa High School Bronchos Fan Page
    -STUDENT ESSAY: THE TAIL AND THE DOG (Terrance L. Furin, Owen J. Roberts School District)
    -ESSAY: Football, Tradition, and the American Way (Lorenzo Cortes, The Hoya)
    -SPECIAL REPORT: 'This program was corrupt' (Pioneer Planet)
Report on Academic cheating in U of Minn Sports, includes a fake ESSAY: Friday Night Lights Author: H. G. Bissinger Reviewer: Bobby Jackson, University of Minnesota
    -BRIEF REVIEW: of Friday Night Lights IN SHORT/FOOTBALL (MICHAEL SWINDLE, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of A PRAYER FOR THE CITY By Buzz Bissinger (Robert Fishman, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Witold Rybczynski: The Fifth City, NY Review of Books
        A Prayer for the City by Buzz Bissinger