“Permian football had become too much a part of the town and too much a part of their own lives, as intrinsic and sacred a value as religion, as politics, as making money, as raising children. That was the nature of sports in a town like this. Football stood at the very core of what the town was about, not on the outskirts, not on the periphery. It had nothing to do with entertainment and everything to do with how people felt about themselves”.
Friday Night Lights likely needs no introduction for anyone who would read a blog about sports books. H.G. Bissinger chronicles the 1988 season of the Permian Panthers, a high school football team in Odessa, Texas. The book spawned both a movie and a very successful TV show and the phrase ‘Friday Night Lights’ has become synonymous with the idea of high school football in the USA.
Often proclaimed the greatest sports book of all time, Friday Night Lights is that rare book that fully lives up its praise. It is also a book that is just as rewarding when read for the second or third time – the tension about how the team will perform is reduced, and the broader story Bissinger sets out to tell comes even more into focus.
Bissinger zooms in on the lives of 6 team members – some black, some white, some poorer than others. Around these narratives he tells the story of the town – its schools, its history, its people, its politics and its prejudices.
Aside from the gripping football narrative – will the team make it to State – there a number of underlying stories that Bissinger focuses on. At its core, Bissinger wants to talk about the idea of worshiping high school sports and athletes and the damage that can be caused. But he cannot resist the allure, the passion and the drama that results from a town putting kids playing football at the very centre of civic life. Bissinger openly admits that the games he attended remain his happiest sporting memories.
Reading this book in 2018, it’s impossible not to have today’s political environment in mind. Many books have tried to chronicle the factors that led to Trump’s election, to capture the ‘Real America’, but reading this account from 30 years ago gives you more insight than any of the recent books. Replace Reagan’s name with Trump and the social commentary could easily have been written today – it’s eye-opening how consistent the issues, concerns and arguably prejudices of everyday working class American’s have been over the 30 year period.
Fundamentally we see a society where life hasn’t lived up the hopes and dreams of many. Bissinger talks about how the town “absolutely worshiped Ronald Reagan, not because of the type of America that Reagan actually created for them but because of the type of America he so vividly imagined” – it’s easy to see Trump as the darker side of that same impulse, rather than helping people forget their problems by imagining a better future, Trump gives his supporters a licence to blame those problems on ‘the other’ – liberals, elites, Mexicans, globalists etc. etc. etc.
Above all, this book is superbly written. The descriptions of the matches are intense, the imagery is vivid and the heartbreak and joy feels very very real. It’s a gripping, entertaining and simply wonderful book.