by H. G. Bissinger
If you haven’t heard of this book, you might have seen the recent, and popular, TV show of the same name. Or the movie, which came out around ten years ago. Or hopefully you’ve at least heard of either of these.
If you haven’t, the expression ‘friday night lights’ refers to high school football (college football is played on Saturday, pro football on Sunday), particularly in towns where football games are the biggest events of the year.
Now, I didn’t grow up in such a place. When I was in high school I never went to a game, and the only time I can remember going to a high school game was when I was around eight. I went with my friend, whose brother was on the team, but we kids mostly just played around under the bleachers. Even when I started enjoying sports, and though I still have pride in my high school, I never had much interest in going to W-L football games, and most of my friends were the same way.
But in Texas, it would seem that things are different. Friday Night Lights indicates that, at least in Odessa and at least in the 1980’s, city life virtually revolved around high school football: the Friday night game was the highlight of the week, football season was the highlight of the year, and for many kids playing varsity football would be the highlight of their lives. Bissinger relates the story of Permian Panthers’ 1988 season primarily through the eyes of a diverse group of players, whose biggest dream is winning a state championship.
Friday Night Lights is about more than one team’s extraordinary efforts on the football field. Bissinger, almost by accident, finds himself exploring deeper, and darker, themes in 1980’s America. It begins with Odessa’s clear educational priorities. The school district, after a prolonged fight against desegregation, ended up drawing new school boundaries to ensure that Permian would get a larger share of black students, seen by the school as potential football stars. Varsity players often did not have to do their homework or even attend class. And academic achievement was largely ignored. One football player, Brian Chavez, is a star with the Panthers, which takes precedence over his other main achievement- being valedictorian.
Bissinger doesn’t stop with Texas education policy. He critiques 1980’s American economic and political culture, and the disaffection many felt from our leaders and their policies. Friday Night Lights is, at its core, about the false promises of America, and the uncommon endurance of the American Dream.
If that sounds grandiose, yeah, it is a bit. Bissinger takes pretty powerful, self-evident examples, and attempts to use them as evidence of an entire nation’s failings. Though I was born in 1989, I didn’t really live through that era. My guess is that Friday Night Lights would have had more meaning for me if I had actually experienced the 80’s, experienced desegregation and oil busts and booms and the 1988 presidential election. The book might be seen in a whole new light with the proper cultural context. So it is unfortunate that I never got that chance.
On the other hand, I get the benefit of Bissinger’s retrospective. He claims to have received death threats from Odessans, who understandably felt betrayed by an outsider who came into their town, had unique access to the team, and seemed to be caught up in the glory of the Permian Panthers. Bissinger makes it clear that he was indeed caught up in the team’s season, regardless of the problems the book exposed.
Similarly, the reader, too, gets caught up in the story of an unlikely group of kids that seems destined for great things. Rich and poor, black and white, the Panthers have their share of ups and downs through the season, struggling to prove that an undersized team from the middle of nowhere can achieve great things.
Friday Night Lights is more than a sports story, it is a very interesting critique of American society. I would highly recommend it, if you think you can handle it.