Friday Night Lights

by H. G. Bissinger
ages: adult
First sentence: “Maybe it was a suddenly acute awareness of being ‘thirtysomething.'”
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I’m probably the last person on the planet to read this; I didn’t even know it existed until the movie came out several years back. Since then (and the highly recommended TV show, as well), I’ve known that I “should” read this one, especially since I consider myself a football fan. But it wasn’t until I read Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer a few months back that I really got serious about reading this book.

You want to know what? It’s incredibly depressing.

If you’ve been living under a rock, the basic story is Bessinger moving to Odessa, TX; a small town in the late 80s that has gone through the boom and bust of oil. Bessinger moves there to follow the town’s main football team, The Permian High MoJo. However, while it’s a book about football, it’s not a football book. Bessinger follows the team throughout the season and highlights the games, but uses football as a springboard to talk about bigger issues: race, class, education, and most of all, the sense of entitlement (and pressure) that comes with being a high school football player.

Bessinger doesn’t paint a pretty picture about it all. Odessa was — one of the things I kept wondering was how everyone’s fared in the 23 years since the 1988 football season — obsessed with football. Perhaps unhealthily so. It was their life, their all, and I’m not talking about the players, either. In a town where there wasn’t much of anything: the industry being basically shut down (I seem to remember a statistic that at one point the unemployment rate in Odessa was at 20%, but I could be wrong), the educational system being basically average, the only hope for anyone — and really, we’re just talking about the boys, most of them white — was to be on their above-average, mostly winning football team.

And so most boys held the dream of playing for the Mojo.

But, even with the hope of something better — or perhaps they put all of their hopes into that promise — the boys didn’t go anywhere. Sure, they made it into the state playoffs, and got as far as the semi-finals. But, their lives, with the exception of the one who put his effort into his academics, didn’t go anywhere. And I found that depressing. Because it’s all for a game.

The other depressing thing was how little has changed in America in the last 23 years. In some ways, things have gotten better. But there was too much in the book that I could nod at and say, “You know, that’s still exactly the same.” We like to think we’ve made progress in race, in education, in our livelihood. But this made me wonder just how much has changed. I’m not sure much has; football is still more important in our lives than, say, a speech by the president on his plan to create jobs. While Rammer Jammer made me feel like I wasn’t enough of a fan, this book in many ways made me ashamed to support a game (a game!) that creates the kind of situations that were put out in this book. Those high school and college players we put so much pressure on to win? They’re boys. And this book is a weighty reminder of what pressure, stress, and too much privilege can do to boys.

And that’s depressing.

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