Sports, Race and Social Issues in Friday Night Lights
Sports in general are a form of competitive entertainment where the participants enjoy the pleasure of displaying their natural talent and their skills, while the viewers are relegated to cheering on the team in which are interested in, many times in a very passionate manner. In most sports there is a clear cut line that separates the participating athletes from the fanatics in the crowd. The book Friday night lights contradicts this notion, this book presents an interesting dynamic which blurs the line between fans and athletes combining both to create an uncontrollable entity that consumes the whole town.
This entity uses the Permian Panther football as a means to express the true feelings and ideals that are shared by the residents of the town. Football is used as vessel that uncovers the sometimes ugly reality of a town that seems locked in a time capsule unaffected by the civil rights movements or the educationally conscious movements of the late 21st century. The themes and issues of race, politics, southern culture, and economics are explored through the major characters of this book.
In a broad and positive sense football is the only element that allows racially and economically challenged town of Odessa to come together communally. The town is clearly divided not only emotionally and mentally but physically as well. The emotions and thoughts of the white residents in town are clearly displayed throughout the book by the racist remarks of many who repeatedly proclaim that blacks and Hispanics are intellectually inferior to whites. They blame the poor overall academic performance of the school on the influx of blacks and Hispanics. They fail to recognize the real reason that they are underachieving academically; which is their preference and bias support for the football program. There are various mentions of the wall that separates the white side of town from the “nigger town” where all the blacks in Odessa reside. The white residents in the town clearly uphold and live by the old southern white supremacist way of life. Football events are the settings in which both black and whites can interact in a positive and civilized manner.
The watermelon feed in which all the football players are introduced is important because is the first event in the book in which all races interact and ignore their differences united by a common goal, which is the capture of a state football title. Winning is important to this community because it is an elements that transcends time and space, it brings together past generations with the present and the future generations of Odessa. This is significant because it combines old prevailing and many times racist attitudes to clash with the progressive and modern attitudes of the newer generations. It appears that for most members in any given community it is important to honor and remember previous generations, this is the reason that history is so celebrated and remembered. It gives us chance to honor the achievements of our predecessors. The town of Odessa seeks to continue this by holding events like the watermelon feed where they replay old tapes of past champions in order to inspire the current and future generations.
Football holds a great historical significance in the hearts minds of the residents of the town of Odessa because it is the one of the few endeavors that as community they have managed to be successful at. They really hold no historical, cultural, religious or artistic achievements that they can be proud of or speak of. That is why they have completely saturated themselves in the culture of football, a culture that has a winning tradition while at the same time virtually ignoring all the other problems that have plagued this town. It is clear that they do not enjoy the civil unrest or economic troubles, but they are stubborn and not willing to allocate the resources for the betterment of the town a whole.
The reality of Odessa is not very flattering for its residents regardless of race. The residents are in a town are mired by economic, social and cultural turmoil. It is discussed that at one point Odessa held the highest per capita murder rate in America. The economy has also suffered due to the feast or famine nature of the oil industry. Odessa is a town that is suffering and unwilling to truly recognize it; they instead find comfort in communally supporting the Permian Panther football program. The members of the community, specifically the parents of the football players; regardless of race are all attempting to live vicariously through their children who are members of the football. This is a common bond that they share, a common interest that bridges the social, racial, cultural and economic gaps that span the town of Odessa. Only through football are they able to reconcile their differences and stand on common ground.
The main characters in the book are used to demonstrate and explore the particulars that exist regarding race, class and culture.
The character that most clearly exemplifies the experience of blacks in the Permian football culture is Booby Miles. He is the prototypical high school star athlete that can be found anywhere in America, but Miles’ position is unique due to the location in which he resides. His character is used as a vessel that clearly explains the racial tension and dynamics that were present in the town of Odessa in 1988. It is evident that blacks and Hispanics were not regarded as significant or contributing members of society. They were only allowed to participate in this culture due to their athletic ability. The other elements of their character were not discussed, appreciated or acknowledged. The prominent members of Odessa only cared about blacks because of what they could contribute to the football program. If they physically had nothing to offer they would be regarded as expendable and worthless. The author shares the story of Miles in order to illustrate this point. In the beginning of the story Miles is presented as the new town hero, the next savior for Permian football. His position of importance is short lived when he is injured in a meaningless pre-season game. His whole world becomes shattered suddenly he is worthless and expendable. During chapter three of the book the reality of race relations is exposed, now that Miles is injured he is no longer seen as a person he is instead a worthless animal. The expendability of black athletes is further exemplified by the stardom that is gained by Chris Comer due to Miles’ injury; he readily replaces and becomes simply the next black athlete in line.
Hispanics are also negatively stereotyped and unfairly criticized during the telling of Friday Night Lights they are repeatedly blamed for the poor educational performance of the high school, and unlike blacks they do not have the same athletic prowess to share with the community. It is Ironic that the Brian Chavez, the only Hispanic starter on the team is also the school valedictorian and probably the smartest student in the whole school. This fact however; is lost on the members of the community who like to stereotype and generalize as much as possible. They ignore the particulars and the facts about their football program; they do not want to realize that the kids are more than just football players; they are actual people with an actual future at stake. They ignore this much like the way they ignore the reality of their town, they want to live in a world where their success as whole is predicated by the win and loss column of their football program instead of it being dictated by facing and conquering the rigors of life like other Americans in other regions of the country do.
It is clear that football is of great significance to the community of Odessa, it brings out in them both the good and the bad. It unites them, but at the same time in a broader sense it separates them. Football appears to make time stand still for them; it allows them to live in the past while ignoring the cultural modernizations that other parts of America have undergone. It appears that through football the community members of Odessa have been able to create a form of oppressive hierarchy that mainly benefits the established powerful members of the football community. The powerful and infamous in this community are the most privileged and revered and also the most rewarded, while the poor and the unknowns are at a disadvantage. Football legends like Shawn Crow are worshiped at events like the watermelon feed. The football coach Gary Gaines holds an exceptionally powerful position. He can determine a player’s future by playing him or sitting him. Although he goes through a lot of stress and anguish he benefits greatly from his position. He does not teach, he only coaches and he makes more money than teachers with Master’s degrees do. The vulnerable and feeble in this hierarchy are the players, specifically the minority players and the other minority members of the community. They are used, misguided, ostracized and in the end discarded by a system that views them as expendable and only valuable for their physical abilities which can be taken away in an instant.
The minority players are robbed of a future because the institution does not emphasize education and their future, they only emphasize the football season. This blinds them, and makes them believe that they have no future outside of football. The other members of the community observe this, and it furthers the harmful and slave-era stereotype that claims that blacks have no other talents that are not of a physical nature. Football in this community allows them to live in the past while ignoring the future and the reality that people especially black can be more that just physical specimens.
Bissinger, H.G. Friday Night Lights: a Town, a Team, and a Dream. [Cambridge, Mass.]: Da Capo, 2000. Print
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