This chapter begins with another Friday morning pep rally, one that is celebrated with such fanfare that one might mistake it for a Rose Bowl celebration. Not counting the players, it includes: the Majorettes, their black and white costumes falling just below their buttocks; the band with over 100 members; the color guard; and of course, the Pipettes.
Afterwards, Don Billingsley shuffles to his next class, unconcerned after such hero worship. For Don and most of the guys on the team, Friday classes merely fill time until the game.
Bissinger uses this anecdote to explore how Permian academics suffer in the face of sports. Teachers are underpaid, overworked professionals who serve a largely uncommitted clientele more interested in football than in learning. Whereas Permian boasted seven National Merit Scholars in the 1970's, 1988 saw only one. While many blame the academic drop on integration and the rapid influx of Hispanics into the community, others blame the decline in the oil market. Either way, teachers are stuck between blaming the kids for not caring at all and blaming themselves for not caring enough.
For Don, academic apathy is not a concern. He gladly copies work from other students too happy to help a football player. To illustrate the overall point, Bissinger details Eddie Driscoll, an accomplished senior who nevertheless dreams of trading his accomplishments for the adoration enjoyed by the players.
Girls are virtually commodities for Permian football players. Many of them are programmed since their junior year to follow their dreams. Unfortunately their prescribed dream was to become a Pipette and find a dreamboat like Don Billingsley to provide everything from tacky deserts to sex. Even girls who showed good intellectual aptitude were pressured to “dumb down” and serve the greater cause.
Brian Chavez is the only Hispanic player on Permian. Unlike Don Billingsley, Brian excels at school academics. In school he is the top student in his class and on the field, he is a force to be reckoned with. Off the field, Brian is quiet and confidant in all his abilities. Many players on the Permian team envy Brian because he will go on to succeed after high school regardless if football works out or not.
The night before Permian’s fourth game of the season, Coach Gaines calls the team and coaching staff together. Again the theme of defeat and humiliation being intolerable is front and center. This time Coach Gaines has a parable rooted in American history of the South. A Confederate scout during the Civil War refuses to betray his friend, even when his life is threatened. The ideas of loyalty and brotherhood at all costs filter through the team. This war metaphor has been used before but hearing it from Coach Gaines always seems to make an impression. This game is against their cross-town rivals Odessa High School.
With every game comes some sort of clash of values. Whether imagined or factual, these opposing values give the fans the illusion that more is at stake than just a football game. Odessa has not beat Permian in twenty-three years. They have come close to beating Permian many times but always seem to come up short. There was a time when Odessa High was the only white school in town. Those were the glory days when the whole region would come together for the common dream; Odessa High had realized that dream when they won the state championship in 1946. Permian had stood squarely in the way of any football success for Odessa High since 1964, the year Permian was created. Many of Odessa’s old supporters blame the influx of Hispanics and basic desegregation on Odessa High’s poor performance against Permian. In addition to desegregation, Permian is accused of poaching high performing talent from Odessa.
Odessa is hungry for a win that night. They want to prove that a team full of Hispanics, second-rate black players, and a few white boys could beat Permian. Unfortunately a win didn’t happen on that night. Permian plays like a well-oiled machine. Don Billingsley, who has acute asthma, decides he can’t play the second half. He tries to gasp for air only to have his chest assaulted by an opposing player a second later. Trapper merely calls Don a ‘pussy’, which is insult enough for the boy to finish the game. In the end Odessa falls to Permian 35-7 and, as far as Permian fans are concerned, the equilibrium that God intended has been maintained.
The irony of the effort, glitter, and glamour put into the Friday morning pep rally is the sorry academic state that Permian is in. S.A.T scores had continuously declined since the 1970’s. Teachers are underpaid and overworked professionals who serve a clientele that would rather attend pep rallies and football games than get an education. During the 1970’s there were no fewer than seven National Merit Scholars at Permian. In 1988 there was only one. Some blamed the school’s poor academic showing on racial integration and the rapid rise of the Hispanic population. Others blamed it on the drop in the oil market and the disintegration of the family unit. Teachers blamed the kids for not caring at all and themselves for not caring enough. Whatever the case, teenagers had ceased to take responsibility for their own learning and teachers were too disenchanted to care anymore.
This overall apathy towards education was made worse by the tacit acceptance of academic mediocrity by everyone from parents right up to the school board. Most stakeholders in the school system seemed oblivious to exactly what these kids did after high school. Many teachers shrugged their shoulders in futility. Perhaps this was the curse of Odessa, generations of unskilled kids taking their chances in the boom and bust economy of the oil fields.
What was even more disconcerting is that the culture around the school demanded girls fill subservient roles that were both degrading and destructive. Since their junior year, or horrifyingly since elementary school, girls were taught that there is no loftier goal than attending Permian and becoming a Pipette. Who needs academics when a girl can make tacky deserts for their football player and offer sex on the side? Julie Gardner had moved from a small town in Montana to Odessa. When she started at Permian, she was smart, confidant, and confused. Few of her peers valued her intellectual abilities. Instead she was taught, that for acceptance, she needed to ‘dumb down’ and tow the humiliating gender line.
The accepted fate for most of the boys after high school was a physically punishing career in on the oilrigs. For girls, the future was even bleaker. Like something out of a Jane Austen novel, the best these girls were taught to hope for was to marry from a select lot of boys whose best before date ended after their final day of high school football.
Odessa High suffers from an inferiority complex. They used to be white school but have in recent years served and increasingly large Hispanic population. On top of that, Permian poaches Odessa High’s elite black players. Permian also enjoys near limitless amounts of money for their football program. Still Odessa is hungry to show that money and status cannot always ensure a win. The rivalry of real values versus imagined values pits East against West.
Odessa High is seen as a school of multi-ethnic kids of various socio-economic groups. There are many newly rich families who are seen by Permian fans as frivolous and lucky. Permian sees themselves as a white school, with some really good black players. The white fans consider their values based on traditions of God, a strong work ethic, and traditional ‘American values’. This perceived battle of values have racial undertones that cannot be ignored. Bissinger concerns himself largely with the Permian perspective throughout the novel. For Permian fans, these football games are not merely sporting contests; they are battles for racially charged supremacy of values.
Permian is victorious that night but each win brings a disturbing set of reoccurring issues. During the game Don Billingsley, who has acute asthma, decides he cannot play the second half. He tries to gasp for air only to have his chest assaulted by an opposing player a second later. Trapper, the team’s trainer, merely calls Don a ‘pussy’. This slur on his manhood or boyhood is enough to make Don go out and complete the second half. There are many times when the narrative resembles the experience of college or professional teams. Remembering that these are mere boys playing football for their high school becomes a surreal experience. The coaches and trainers use hyper-masculine stereotypes to bully these boys into sacrificing their bodies for a cause that is largely meaningless to their futures.