I don’t get sport. I’ve played it, I’d prefer it if England won the World Cup, but I never really got it, never felt that passion that brings millions to the stands on a cold Saturday morning. I don’t think there’s something wrong with football because of this, it’s obviously something in me. Many book types don’t get it. George Orwell wrote that ‘Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting’ and that ‘big-scale sport is itself, I think, merely another effect of the causes that have produced nationalism.’ That is true… but it is not all of the truth.
The nearest I have come to understanding the passion is through watching the TV show Friday Night Lights, to which over the last few weeks I have become hopelessly addicted. It’s based on the book of the same name by H. G. Bissinger, who during the late 1980s spent a year in Odessa, Texas, a small town that revolved around high school football. Bissinger followed the coach and players of the Permian Panthers through the 1988 season: ‘for the next four months I was with them through every practice, every meeting, every game, to chronicle the highs and lows of being a high school football player in a town such as this. I went to school with them, and home with them, and rattlesnake hunting with them, and to church with them, because I was interested in portraying them as more than just football players, and also because I liked them.’
Riven with inequalities, poverty and violence, devastated by the oil bounce, Odessa was a town where football players carried a great and terrible burden of expectation. The man who has it worst is the head coach – Garry Gaines in the book, Eric Taylor in the series. Bissinger writes that ‘there was no profession in the state of Texas with worse job security than that of high school football coach.’ The coach works twenty hour days to get his team in shape. When he turns on the radio, he hears call-in radio shows scrutinise his every decision. His wife is used to making sacrifices, the kids are used to changing schools, because the local boosters won’t think twice about firing him if his record slows. Win a game, and he won’t have to pay for a drink for a week. Lose a game, and he can expect to find For Sale signs hammered into his lawn.
One of the contradictions in Friday Night Lights is the enormous effort and resources invested in something that is so transient. Bissinger speaks to a local dad who ‘saw the irresistible allure of high school sports, but he also saw an inevitable danger in adults living vicariously through their young. And he knew of no candle that burned out more quickly than that of the high school athlete.’ It’s the centre of everything, resources are piled into football programmes while basic academics goes to the wall, and yet for most of the young men on the field, sports won’t be a lasting career for them. It’s not going to feed their children. Permian lads play a little football and then become farmers or oilmen and wind up broke or in prison or dead.
In popular culture the high school coach is supposed to be everything that’s practical and wise. He provides life lessons that players take with them off the field. TV coach Eric Taylor seems to fulfil that for his players and for us: he’s sensible, monogamous, pragmatic, tough but ultimately fair: he’s morally upright but never priggish, command without pomposity, straight down the line without being boring. The coach knows all the practical things – but he also surely knows the transience of all this, how brief those lights do shine. He knows most of these guys will never make it to the professional leagues. But he knows also that everything is transient, that when the business has crashed and the kids have grown and the house has been sold and your wife has walked out (worse, she might have stayed) the memories of your time under the lights are still going to burn bright in your head and heart. The coach is a kind of shaman. He knows that transience is at the heart of all we love. And you suspect that Taylor (played brilliantly by Kyle Chandler, with just the hint maybe of a Baltimore accent) knows this, too. ‘There’s a joy to this game,’ Taylor tells his players. ‘Is there not?’
Bissinger wrote his book ‘not with the clever eyes of a novelist, but the clear eyes of a journalist.’ Bissinger did get sport and understood the magic of the lights. He liked living in Odessa and he liked the people he met there. But he didn’t bury the town’s dark side, and as a result his book divided its readers. From his afterword, written ten years after the first edition:
Over the years I have been accused of betrayal, and sensationalism, and taking information out of context, and mis-quoting. I am not surprised by these accusations, nor am I troubled by them. When I first arrived in Odessa, I anticipated a book very much in the tradition of the film Hoosiers, a portrait of the way in which high school sports can bring a community together. There were elements of that bond in Odessa, and they were reflected in the book. But along the way some other things happened— the most ugly racism I have ever encountered, utterly misplaced educational priorities, a town that wasn’t bad or evil but had lost any ability to judge itself. It would have been a journalistic disgrace to ignore these elements.
You’d expect the TV show to gloss over a community’s meaner spirit. But Friday Night Lights as a series wasn’t afraid to portray failure, crime, small town racism and cutthroat small town politics. (It featured, for instance, the bravest pregnancy storyline I’ve seen in a US show). For the most part the programme is standard high school stuff, the characters are little more than Breakfast Club stereotypes, but the show compels because of the unashamed warmth and naturalism with which it plays out its stories. Like I say, I was hooked. I even kind of understood the football scenes. God help me, I found myself cheering them on.