Anyone visiting Odessa from more populated centers might think that they were caught in a time warp. The town refused to acknowledge or validate desegregation until they were forced to in the early 1980’s. Of the three high schools in Odessa, one was 90 percent minority based and the other two were 90 plus percent white based. Black players are accepted on “white” teams like Permian because, after desegregation, schools without the talent of black athletes simply could no longer compete. As long as players like Boobie miles perform as they are expected to, they reap the benefits of being a football star. If something should affect their performance like an injury, they become expendable. One coach’s sentiments, echoed by the general white community, suggested that if Boobie’s injury took him out of football, he would just be another, “big ol’ dumb nigger” (67).
Bissinger notes that the racism cuts both ways. Bissinger portrays the predominantly black Carter fans and players as overtly racist and angry. Black players and coaching staff from Permian are subjected to offensive monikers like “Oreo” (305). One of the running themes in this book involves the license that football gives fans and players to act like racist hooligans. This prejudice begs the question: are these fans merely stirred up by the moment or is football enabling them to act out their inner prejudices? Is the high school football game a vehicle to display long simmering racial aggression? Perhaps these outbursts are due to a combination of factors but the cumulative effect on the atmosphere of this game is ugly. The reader gets the distinct sense that this football game is more about racial superiority than it is about football.
Misplaced Educational Priorities
LaRue Moor is a dynamic English teacher at Permian who laments the priorities of the school and the community. Although a fan of Permian football, she regrets that academics have been largely been sacrificed for football glory. Teachers are underpaid and overworked professionals who serve a clientele that would, largely, 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. Boobie Miles is a perfect example of what is wrong with Odessa’s education system. A typical day for Boobie at school involves joking around in his classes or playing with an object for his amusement. Boobie is at least two years behind his peers in all his subjects. This doesn’t seem a concern for Boobie or the school as he breezes through his classes without having to write a sentence or subtract a number. Bissinger doesn’t place the blame squarely on Permian but rather than the culture of football in the state of Texas.
Bissinger is also critical of other schools, Like Carter High in Dallas, who violate and circumvent the educational system in order to produce a winning football team. This overall apathy towards education is 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 do after high school. Many teachers shrug their shoulders in futility. Perhaps this is the curse of Odessa: generations of unskilled kids taking their chances in the boom-and-bust economy of the oil fields.
The Economy and Football
The problems with the education system are really a microcosm of the mentality of a strictly oil based economy. Odessa is a product of oil boom and bust economics; in the late 1980’s the economy was mostly a bust. The failure of the economy predictably leads to failures in family structure, education, and community stability. Bissinger often alludes to the surreal importance that the community puts on high school football. All the stresses of life in a tough economy are placed squarely on the shoulders of a group of teenage boys and a coach whose job depends on success. Football becomes a very odd partner with food stamps, divorce, and social marginalization. The rush of attending a game on Friday night is a temporary elixir for the town’s socio-economic woes. After their final year of football, most of these boys are spit back into Odessa’s depressed economy. They enter an unforgiving world with a few memories of football glory and a mediocre education.
Delusions of Grandeur
The “Watermelon Feed” is meant to instill the team with confidence. In reality, it is a pep rally is set up by the school administration to turn mere boys, many that cannot adequately write and or add numbers, intogods. The event is designed to showcase the team for that year. People attend this event like it is their civic duty of the utmost importance. Bissinger describes the atmosphere as part pep rally and part hero-worship of young gladiators. Bissinger is quick to add that there is a tradeoff for these young athletes. In exchange for broken bones and pulled tendons, they are treated like royalty in the school. The cheerleading squad, the Pepettes, hover over the players like their personal geisha girls.
Unfortunately, once their final year is done, most of these boys will simply be spit out of this machine back into the land of mortals. Perhaps a few might go onto college football scholarships but ultimately, even these will be a let down. All the boys, with the exception of Tony Chavez, will be ill equipped to handle the academic and social rigors of college life. All of them will find that, no matter how “good” they were in high school, they are disposable in college. The hero worship they felt at Permian vanishes if they should get on a college team. Without all the external stimuli and motivation, most players simply drop out of school: they see their football dreams fading away in the springtime mist.
The sad truth is that in Permian’s fifty-five year football history, only six players have tried for or made the pro leagues. Most of these boys obtain jobs in or around the oil business that will slowly tax their bodies and souls, just as the oil business had done to their fathers. When they become men, many Permian football alumni will relive their glory days through their own sons or in the stupor of a bottle.
Subjugation of Girls
The girls at Permian follow gender roles reminiscent of 1950’s America. Almost every girl at Permian High wants to be a Pepette. These are girls who exclusively devote themselves to the football players. Each Pepette is assigned to a specific player. They act as domestic servants for an appointed player by cooking them football themed deserts or making signs for them. If a girl is blessed with a keen intellect, she simply “dumbs down” herself to fit into Permian school culture. Players like Don Billingsley enjoy a bizarre hero status among many girls at Permian; it is a status that affords them everything from getting their books carried to getting paid for sex. The accepted fate for most of the boys after high school is a physically punishing career on the oilrigs. For girls, the future is 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.
Culture and Politics
Bissinger paints the decisive victory over the Midland Bulldogs as a nostalgic throwback to middle America in the 1950’s. Permian wins this game 42-0, but what is most impressive is the surreal scene after the game; it is a scene that creates the illusion of America that West Texas football fans conjure up in their dreams. The bands on both teams belt out patriotic tunes: the smell of hot dogs, popcorn, and beer lingers in the air. The teams line up on both sides of the field, their helmets off, looking like young gladiators after a battle. Children, parents, and grandparents stand in awe of this truly American spectacle before them. This brief revision of days gone by is directly related to the politics of the white middle class. The white middle class in Odessa clings to “traditional” American values of hard work, church, minimal government, and racial homogenization.
There is much fanfare when politics comes to Odessa in the form of George Bush and the Republican Party. Really Bush might have skipped visiting Odessa without having to worry about missing out on the white vote. White Odessa is firmly Republican and Conservative. The Bush name is synonymous with the values most middle class West Texans cling to amidst their rapidly changing world. George Bush does come to bask in the adulation of thousands of white supporters. Hispanics and Blacks apparently missed the memo about the rally. Bissinger notes the irony of white middle class disappearing. The lengthy recession has meant many whites in Odessa have slipped into lower middle class or even poverty. Still these same people cling to the Republican Party and the values which they believe will take them back to a time that really only exists in their imaginations.
The Male Stereotype
Bissinger paints a picture of a world where the boys on the team are treated as men through the lens of male hegemonic masculinity rather than the kids they really are. The coaching staff often hurls insults, laced with sexist language, at the boys under the guise of motivation. At one point 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, the team’s conditioner, merely calls Don a 'pussy'. This is insult enough for the boy to finish the game. There is a skewed sense of gender identity that extends off the field where any tears, hurt feelings, or fear is frequently met with an offensive euphemism for women. This culture of misogyny is tacitly accepted by West Texas culture at large. The pressure to conform to the rigid illusion of male invulnerability may translate to harder hits on the football field but ultimately leads to the boys' developing a very limited sense of empathy and self-awareness.
Friday Night Lights Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Friday Night Lights is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
I don't think Don wanted to be racist but, when stressed, he reverted to the only viewpoint he was brought up with. After a series of mistakes on the field, Chris Comer replaces Don. Chris happens to be black and Don reverts to racist rants that...