Our Sports-Saturated Society: Buzz Bissinger Revisits FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS

Guest Article by: 
Ted McLoof

Frequently cited as one of the greatest ever books on sports, Buzz Bissinger's FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS has inspired as much discussion as it has praise. It's equal parts historical document, savage critique of a world gone football-mad, social deconstruction, and poignant memoir. Bissinger offers lacerating insights into the racial, academic, and financial effects high school football has on a small Texas town in the late 1980s, and what's most astonishing is how true the lessons of his experience there still hold. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of his massively successful book, Bissinger talks about the still-pervasive problems with the sport, the experience of watching his work adapted three times over, the book's legacy, and what a total dick Malcolm Gladwell is.

Friday Night Lights (25th Anniversary Edition): A Town, a Team, and a Dream By H. G. Bissinger Cover Image
ISBN: 9780306824210
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Da Capo Press - August 25th, 2015

Brazos Bookstore: I know that your initial conceit for the book was to discuss high school football's unifying effect on small town America, but that ultimately the picture you found during your time with Permian was a darker portrait. At what point during your research did the book change its shape and tone? When did you realize that the situation wasn't as sunny as you'd initially thought?

Buzz Bissinger: When Boobie Miles got hurt right before the season. I will never forget his anguish on the field. I will never forget how the town turned on him after they found someone better. The racial scorn. The idea that Boobie was worthless without football.

BB: Since we're discussing the twenty-fifth anniversary edition, I'm interested in your thoughts on how the book has evolved through its adaptation to a series, then a film, and then a second television series. Since the book is largely critical of high school football, what are your thoughts on the series, which is far less critical and, arguably, almost a glamorization of the game? Do you see it (the series) this way as well?

Bissinger: The series is inspired by the book, not based on it. It morphed into a very different direction, really a show about marriage. I thought it was extremely well done. I did not watch it regularly. I knew the real story. I also knew that many were getting rich (not me among them) off the show. Without me there would have been no Friday Night Lights.

BB: One of my favorite Buzz Bissinger moments was during your 2012 Intelligence Squared debate with Malcolm Gladwell, wherein you successfully argued in favor of a ban on college football. Your team had myriad research to support your claims. I noticed a reaction to the debate (such as in this ESPN article) from sports fans, one that suggests academics shouldn't be commenting on this issue. Have you seen a similar fallout from the book? Do sports fans generally dislike your criticism of the game? And if so, how do you respond to such a reaction?

Bissinger: That was a great moment, no thanks to Malcolm Gladwell. I did all the research. He was an arrogant putz. Full of himself like his books. Refused to acknowledge my contribution...

I don't care about the criticisms. The book has been almost universally praised. It is even used as a text at Permian High School. I just wish more people would listen to what I say, particularly those with power to do something about it.

BB: I've seen in interviews that after the book's publication, you maintained a close friendship with Boobie Miles, one you've described as almost a "father-son" relationship. Has that continued twenty-five years later? What are his feelings about the book, and his portrayal in the 2004 film?

Bissinger: Boobie and I have remained extremely close ever since the book. He is like a son to me in many ways. Boobie loved the book for telling the true story. He thought the film was very watered down. In the real story, Boobie severed from the team completely after it became clear he was never going to play. In the movie, Boobie comes back to support the team. Not even close. Hollywood goo....

BB: You've noted in several venues the problematic nature of college football. I'm curious as to your opinion regarding pay for play.

My own opinion is that college players deserve a salary, but at the same time, this might exacerbate the problems you've noted—mainly that athletics distract from the educational aims of an academic institution by turning these students into employees. What are your thoughts on this complex issue?

Bissinger: Players coming out of high school should be free agents and go to the highest bidder. Teams can spend as much or as little as they want. There will be haves and have nots just like the are now. Market forces will dictate the price.

The Nick Sabans and the Urban Meyers make millions off players who don't see a dime. What happens if they get hurt (although some select players are insured as seniors if they are likely high draft picks)? College is a farm system for the NFL and they don't pay a nickel. Major League Baseball pays for kids out of high school. Kids are eligible for the NBA after the first year of college. The NFL should yearly contribute $100 million for use as scholarships for non-athlete students.

BB: On that same note, would you ever consider writing a follow-up of sorts to Lights, following a college or pro team instead of high school? Are the problems different enough to consider a fresh look at the issue?

Bissinger: No. One FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS is plenty.

BB: Do you still watch pro football? Or college ball? If so, is it difficult to enjoy the games after all you've discovered? If not, would you advise most football fans to reconsider their fandom?

Bissinger: I still love football, particularly pro football. Probably because I am in a fantasy league. I like the violence of the game and at least admit it because football = violence. I miss the great hits of old as long as they were legal. Would I want to play? Absolutely not. The risk of concussion (and other injuries) is too high. But parents and players know the risks now. They play at their own peril.

BB: Would you have anticipated, during the book's initial release, the impact it's had and its legacy? Was there any indication that it would have endured for as long as it has?

Bissinger: Of course not. No writer imagines his work will endure and still be widely read and talked about after twenty-five years. Why has it? Because hundreds of people have told me that they identified with FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, that it captured the uniqueness of the high school football experience, unlike any other in sports. It is also a cautionary tale that women and men respond to.

The twenty-fifth anniversary edition is not out of vanity or financial gain since the book has always sold steadily. The hope is to introduce the book to a whole new generation of readers. It does still hold up, the lessons as applicable now as they were then. Maybe even more so in our sports saturated society. We need to recognize that.

Ted McLoof teaches English at the University of Arizona. His work has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Minnesota Review, Monkeybicycle, Hobart, Juked, Gertrude, DIAGRAM, Louisville Review, Kenyon Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He’s a Best of the Net and Pushcart Prize nominee. He really likes Woody Allen films, and doesn’t understand the Internet.

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