Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto

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Why Big-Time College Football Sucks

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1. A Killer Business Model
So tonight it’ll be Oregon vs. Ohio State for the college football championship. I’m going to pass. A big part of the reason is that I just watched Amir Bar-Lev’s sickening and fascinating new documentary, Happy Valley. Early in the movie we meet a Pennsylvania State University student named Tyler Estright who’s being interviewed in his dorm room, dressed in a Penn State t-shirt and a Penn State cap turned backward. The wall behind him is adorned with pictures of Joe Paterno, the university’s legendary football coach who, shortly before this interview, was fired amid revelations that one of his long-time assistants, Jerry Sandusky, was a serial sexual abuser of young boys.

“How could they do this to Joe?” Estright cries, echoing a common refrain in State College, Pa. — known as Happy Valley — that Paterno was unfairly punished for another man’s sins. “Look,” Estright continues, “I feel bad for the victims, okay? I have to say that so people don’t think I’m an idiot. But the thing that made me maddest was that the NCAA took away Joe’s wins.”

Though Sandusky was convicted on 45 counts of sexual assault and sentenced to life in prison, Estright derides an on-campus candlelight vigil for the victims as “fake.” Later, watching television as Penn State and Nebraska players kneel together on the field for a prayer before the kickoff of the first game in the post-Paterno era, Estright barks, “Get up off your knees and let’s play football! That’s what we do here!”

Eventually, Estright’s disgust with the unfairness of Paterno’s treatment and the ensuing National Collegiate Athletic Association sanctions shades into fury when the Penn State players start wearing their names above the numerals on the backs of their jerseys. This seemingly minor change is, for Estright, an unpardonable contravention of everything Penn State football supposedly stood for under Paterno: selfless devotion to the notion that the game of football, if played correctly, builds better people and a better world.

Also buying into this questionable notion is an artist named Michael Polito, who painted a brazenly religious mural of Penn State football worthies on the wall of a downtown building. A God-like (and haloed) Paterno is at the center, with a Christ-like Sandusky at his right hand, both of them surrounded by angelic coaches and players. After the convictions and the firings and the sanctions, we watch Polito paint over the image of the disgraced Sandusky. Then, after much soul searching, Polito paints over Paterno’s halo but leaves the rest of beloved Joe Pa intact. Painting over that halo, says Polito, is “the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” There is also much lamentation when the statue of Paterno is removed from its hallowed spot in front of the football stadium and unceremoniously hauled away. Such events pass for traumas inside a bubble like Happy Valley, Pa.

It’s sickening and fascinating to watch Tyler Estright and Michael Polito and other Penn State football supporters not because they’re unusual but because, as Happy Valley makes clear, so many other people in Pennsylvania and the rest of America feel exactly the way they feel. In the end, this movie is not really about a sexual predator and his enabler. It’s about what their downfall illuminates: a nation so drunk on sports, especially on big-time college football, that it has lost the ability to think and feel. America has become a nation, as one reviewer of Happy Valley wrote, “put under a spell, even reduced to grateful infantilism, by the game of football.”

How did this come to pass? To arrive at an answer, do what you always do in America: follow the money. In 2010, the Southeastern Conference, which has produced the last seven national champions in college football, became the first conference to make $1 billion in revenue. This year’s three playoff games and associated bowl games are part of a new 12-year TV contract worth $7.3 billion. Baseball, once known as America’s national pastime, has been thoroughly eclipsed by college (and pro) football. Game 1 of last year’s baseball World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Kansas City Royals drew half as many viewers as a mid-season college football game between Florida State and Notre Dame. Some 28 million people tuned in to each of the Jan. 1 playoff games. Football generates about two-thirds of the revenue at major college athletic programs. Yes, big-time college football has turned its stratospheric popularity into one highly productive cash cow.

But the game’s current success is built on a pair of unpretty pillars: the grateful infantilism of millions of fans like Tyler Estright; and the fact that the players who generate the billions of dollars in revenue do not receive a dime in compensation. That’s what you might call a killer business model.

2. A Secular Religion
College football’s recent tsunami of popularity caught me by surprise, even though I’ve known for years that big-time college football is virtually a secular religion across the South and in such select Yankee hotbeds as State College, Pa.; Columbus, Ohio; South Bend, Indiana; and Ann Arbor, Mich. Now you can add Eugene, Oregon to the list. I attended a few University of Michigan games as a kid — spectacles that drew upwards of 100,000 fans into the university’s colossal bowl of a stadium. In my memory, there was something distinctly gladiatorial about those games.

The South’s passion for college football dates back at least to 1926, when Alabama became the first school from the region to play in the Rose Bowl. Three years after that red-letter date, my late father, then aged 7, snuck under a fence to witness the first game ever played in Sanford Stadium in his hometown of Athens, Ga. — a 15-0 victory for Georgia over mighty Yale. In the 1960s, coach Bear Bryant, a sort of piney-woods Joe Paterno, turned Alabama into a national powerhouse.

In 1982, I landed a job as a Top 40 disc jockey at a Savannah, Ga., radio station that also broadcast the University of Georgia Bulldogs’s football games. One of my side duties was to put together each Saturday’s taped pre-game show, which required me to travel up to the campus in Athens for the annual pre-season Media Day.

It was an experience I’ll never forget. Georgia had won the national championship in 1980, and Bulldog running back Herschel Walker was a heavy favorite for the Heisman Trophy in 1982. With the faithful drooling in anticipation of another national title, radios droned the state’s unofficial anthem: “Give Herschel Walker the ball…”

When I arrived on the Athens campus for Media Day, there was an armada of TV trucks parked outside the athletic complex, bristling like giant insects. Inside, an army of broadcasters, sportswriters, and nobodies like myself bustled around, interviewing coaches and players. It was an astonishing dance. The interviewers approached their subjects with great deference, especially the star players and the coach, Vince Dooley, who struck me as the biggest gas bag who ever wore pants. All pronouncements were written down or tape-recorded or videotaped as though they were holy writ, soon to be disseminated to the waiting multitudes. It was amazing to watch grown men kowtow to mumbling teenage boys, even if those boys happened to be chiseled, 250-pound slabs of beef.

Eventually I broke away from the breathless clots of interviewers crowding around the players, and I noticed…the girls. They were impossibly beautiful, impossibly blonde, impossibly tan, as though they’d all been force-fed a diet of peaches and yogurt and sunshine. The black girls were every bit as luscious. Co-eds don’t look like this up North, I thought. The girls were lurking along the walls in sundresses, and I soon realized they were actually jiggling with impatience for all the old men with the microphones and notebooks to get out of the way so they could get a shot at those beautiful slabs of boy beef, prime boyfriend material, maybe husband material, maybe even N.F.L. meal-ticket material.

The air in that room was a hormonal cocktail, so potent, so thick, so musky that I was surprised those girls hadn’t already come out of their sundresses. All in due time, I told myself. As I drove back home to Savannah that evening, I realized I had gotten my first glimpse of the big-time college football business model. It was built on an infantile news media feeding pap to infantile fans, who treated teenage boys like princes while the university raked in millions of dollars off the unpaid labor of those pampered princes. The equation had it all: big money, big media, celebrity, and sex. The only thing missing was academics. More on that in a moment.

Alas, the Georgia faithful were to suffer unimaginable heartbreak at the end of that season. Herschel Walker won the Heisman Trophy and the Bulldogs won the Southeastern Conference championship and finished the regular season ranked #1. But in the Sugar Bowl they lost the national championship to the #2 team in the land, the Nittany Lions from Happy Valley, Pa., coached by a doomed god named Joe Paterno.

3. The “Student-Athlete”
Which brings us to the NCAA’s most cynical and lucrative myth, the “student-athlete.” Four years after I attended that Media Day in Athens, the president of the University of Georgia resigned when the board of regents implicated him and Vince Dooley, who was athletic director as well as football coach, in a pattern of academic abuse in the admission and advancement of student-athletes. The abuse was brought to light by Jan Kemp, an English professor who had the temerity to complain when higher-ups intervened to give nine football players a passing grade for a remedial English course they had failed. The passing grades enabled the players to compete in that year’s Sugar Bowl. For her trouble, Kemp was demoted, then fired. She sued. At trial, one of the university’s attorneys justified the favorable treatment of a hypothetical football player this way: “We may not make a university student out of him, but if we can teach him to read and write, maybe he can work at the post office rather than as a garbage man when he gets through with his athletic career.” Despite such shrewd lawyering, Kemp won the case and was awarded more than $1 million in damages and lost wages.

Cut to the present. The University of North Carolina, which has long prided itself on “the Carolina Way” — athletic excellence and academic rigor — is now reeling from revelations that for 18 years a “shadow curriculum” funneled student-athletes into courses that required no class attendance and no course work other than a single paper, which teachers often didn’t read. For such scholarship, more than 1,000 “student-athletes” received high enough grades to be able to continue to compete.

Defenders of Joe Paterno never tire of pointing out that 80-plus percent of his football players earned their degrees, compared with a national average of about 50 percent. But as a recent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette study revealed, players on the top 25 football and basketball teams tend to get “clustered” into majors where accommodating professors and less rigorous work loads are more likely to result in grades that allow the athletes to remain eligible to play. At Baylor, the student-athlete’s major of choice is General Studies; at Texas A&M, it’s Agricultural Leadership and Development; at Oregon, it’s Social Science, and so forth. This is not a knock on the student-athletes. Competing on a big-time college football or basketball team — with its time-consuming practices, training and travel — is a full-time job, and it leaves players with far less time and energy for academics than non-athletes enjoy. “The Carolina Way,” it turns out, is a fantasy, little more than a hollow PR stunt.

Sandwiched between the academic scandals at Georgia and North Carolina is a long and dreary litany of cash payouts, rape charges, shoe scandals, drug busts, the Penn State horror show, and my personal favorite, student-athletes who are unable to read their own contracts when they turn pro.

But rococo scandals are just the beginning of the woes now bedeviling the NCAA’s killer business model. The National Labor Relations Board ruled in March that Northwestern University football players are school employees and thus eligible to form a union. In August, a federal judge ruled that the NCAA violates antitrust laws by limiting what college athletes can receive from their “names, images and likenesses.” The ruling stopped short of allowing students to receive money from commercial endorsements while still in school. It also failed to address the elephant in the room: Given the revenues they generate, shouldn’t athletes in big-time college sports, specifically football and basketball, get paid for their services?

The answer to that and other vexing questions might come from, of all places, Capitol Hill, where there’s a movement under way to form a presidential commission to look into the numerous problems facing big-time college sports. The NCAA, meanwhile, is already angling to shore up its crumbling business model. In the first half of 2014, the NCAA paid almost a quarter of a million dollars to lobbyists to press the case on Capitol Hill that it deserves an antitrust exemption. Yes indeed, always follow the money.

4. Football as Metaphor
How do you explain football’s rampaging popularity? Take your pick.

On the most superficial level, the game’s violence has a built-in appeal in a bellicose country like America. The parallels between football and war are almost too patent: the trench warfare at the line of scrimmage, the aerial combat (with occasional bursts of ballet) of the passing game, the bone-crushing contact, the martial precision of the marching bands. Increasingly, there is also the presence of the U.S. military at games — uniformed personnel participating in on-field ceremonies, fighter planes screaming overhead, game broadcasts peppered with recruiting ads urging members of the underclass to volunteer for the armed services so they can take part in our forever wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Like Hollywood, big-time college football has been thoroughly infiltrated by the U.S. military.

There’s a much subtler link between football and the military: the ways players and soldiers get treated. First they’re seduced, then they’re worshiped, then they’re discarded. This link is beautifully captured by Steve Almond in his new book, Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto:

The civilian and the fan participate in the same system. We off-load the moral burdens of combat, mostly to young men from the underclass, whom we send off to battle with hosannas and largely ignore when they return home disfigured in body and mind.

It is a paradoxical dynamic. After all, part of what it means to be a football fan is that we have a sophisticated appreciation for the game, and a deep respect for the players who compete at the highest level…But it turns out that our adulation…is highly conditional. As soon they no longer excel on the field, they become expendable.

Another source of football’s popularity is that it’s ideally suited to television — short bursts of violent action separated by downtime that can be used to over-analyze the action or sell things. Compare this to baseball’s unhurried, relatively seamless pacing (and lack of a game clock), or with soccer’s two halves of 45 uninterrupted minutes of action when no one tries to sell the viewer anything. Baseball and soccer can’t hope to surpass football’s appeal to a populace with a wide violent streak, a short attention span, and an innate impatience with narratives that unfold at a leisurely pace. Americans detest longueurs almost as much as they love their shock and their awe. If baseball belongs to the pastoral 19th century, football is a perfect fit with the frenzied, fragmented 21st.

Isn’t professional football, with its stratospheric salaries, concussions, and domestic-violence scandals, even worse than big-time college football? I think not. The billionaires who own NFL franchises may enjoy unconscionable tax breaks because the IRS regards NFL teams as “non-profit” operations, and the owners may stage their untaxed extravaganzas in stadiums funded by taxpayers, but at least those rich owners pay their players, and pay them well. There’s a certain sleazy integrity to the NFL that’s absent from the NCAA. And the NFL, for all its many faults, has inspired at least two very fine novels — Peter Gent’s North Dallas Forty and Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes. That’s not nothing.

So feel free to take your pick as to why big-time college and pro football are so popular. Much more interesting to me, in the end, is what football means. I see it as nothing less than a metaphor for America. The game and the nation were built on a shared impulse: the drive to acquire an enemy’s territory through violence. Is this overly simplistic? I don’t think so, because games reveal character, both of individuals and of groups (teams and fans, even nations). I believe that a football team’s drive down the field is an echo of one of the central narratives of our national history — the drive west through the forceful subjugation of the native populace. If you buy this equation, you begin to see just how deeply football is threaded into America’s DNA. It’s nothing less than a crystallization of our national character. No wonder so many millions of Americans are drunk on the game. And as we become increasingly infantilized by sports and celebrity worship, technology and consumer goods, no wonder a fan like Tyler Estright becomes outraged that more than 100 of Penn State’s football victories were vacated, yet he remains virtually indifferent that dozens of boys were sexually abused by one of the school’s assistant coaches. After a while, it starts to make perfect sense.

5. The Pure Joy of Play
I love to play sports, especially pick-up basketball, and I enjoy watching sports in small doses, especially minor-league baseball, and basketball at the high school and small-time college levels. (Though as Friday Night Lights reminded us, high school sports are not immune to many of the ills that have perverted big-time college sports.)

So, a few nights ago, I went up to the Bronx to watch a basketball game between two mid-level NCAA Division I schools, Fordham University and Siena College. There were barely 1,000 spectators in Fordham’s lovely old gym, there was not a single NBA prospect on the floor, and both teams have at best a modest chance of winning their respective conference tournaments and qualifying for the big-money NCAA tournament in March. Despite all this — or, rather, because of it — the game was a thing of beauty, a tight, well played tussle between two groups of talented young men who play for the love of a game that has given them a chance to get a free college education.

The true beauty of that game in the Bronx was that it was not about making money. It was about something much bigger, the thing that sports are supposed to be about but too rarely are in America today.

It was about the pure joy of play.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

To Hell with All that Guilty Love: On Steve Almond’s ‘Against Football’

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Football is the most popular sport in America. Baseball, basketball, hockey, and even sometimes that suspect endeavor known as soccer all have their adherents. But when it comes to true rallying power, no other athletic contest outside of the Olympics can reliably achieve critical mass like professional and college football.

This is a truth rarely acknowledged. Football knocked baseball, that lazy and pastoral game of grass diamonds and poetic sinkers, off the perch sometime after the Second World War. Baseball is still referred to as the national game. But a glance at how the country comes to a nacho-sated halt on Super Bowl Sunday but barely misses a beat during the World Series tells the true story. Maybe that’s because Americans know there is something intrinsically negative about the institution of football itself. Maybe we as a country would rather think of ourselves as fans of baseball than football. Spectators at the Roman Coliseum, after all, knew there was something untoward about watching one gladiator sever another’s limbs, no matter how lustily they egged him on. Ken Burns will never make an 11-part PBS documentary on football.

If popular sports constitute a feedback loop with society, each reflecting and influencing the other, it’s difficult to argue that football’s dominance is a positive thing. With the steady drip of grim news about crooked stadium deals, domestic violence, and the ever-mutating and worsening concussion scandals — and that’s without even getting into college players who read at a 5th-grade level and the various high school team mass-rape outrages — what’s a football lover supposed to do? How much should they care? What’s the ethical thing to do? Is it possible to simply watch and yet not be complicit? What, if any, are a fan’s responsibilities?

Steve Almond wrestles with a swarm of similar quandaries in his short, lacerating new bar-argument of a book, Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto. It isn’t an argument he was itching to have. Almond is a bone-deep fan of the game: “I am one of you.” This is a crucial bona fide for somebody churning up this kind of imbroglio. To describe with any authority what is truly awful about football, it helps to love it and to know it.

In the first place, for all its seeming simplicity of quadrilateral lines and battle formations, football is a wildly complicated game studded with arcane rules that take some time to appreciate. Secondly, since football discourse’s tenor trends toward tribal defensiveness and instantaneous fury, any negative opinion about the game from a non-fan is dismissed even quicker than if said by a true believer.

Like most of us, Almond thought he was immune from modern sports mania’s entanglements. We all know (and some of us resemble) the type, eyes scouring for the nearest screen showing SportsCenter, phones lit up by fantasy scores and trash-talk, ears always full of the angry drone of sports talk radio. No matter the mountains Almond would move to watch his Raiders lose time after catastrophic time, he thought he could stay above the fray.

In the preface, Almond describes a newspaper article he pasted to the wall of his office, which contains a quote from running back Kevin Faulk after he took a head-rattling hit. Faulk’s words were clearly those of a man who had suffered a significant blow to the brain. Almond writes, “I thought it was funny:”

I assumed, in other words, a posture of ironic distance, which is what we Americans do to avoid the corruption of our spiritual entanglements. Ironic distance allows us to separate ourselves from the big, complicated moral systems around us (political, religious, familial), to sit in judgment of others rather than ourselves. It’s the reason, as we zoom into the twilight years of our imperial reign, that Reality TV has become our designated guilty pleasure.

But here’s the thing. You can run from your own subtext for only so long. Those spray-tanned lunatics we happily revile are merely turned-out versions of our private selves. The whores we hide from public view.

Almond is disturbed by what he sees as a pernicious blend of unthinking brutality and fooling-ourselves mass consumption. There is the hypocrisy that leads thousands of fans in stadiums and TV rooms to first shout at their guy to take the other guy’s head off, then sit quietly once the poleaxed player is crumpled comatose on the turf, and then applaud in self-congratulatory fashion when he limps off the field.

Wisely, Almond doesn’t spend much time on proving the concussion crisis; which is less a new crisis than an inherent part of the game that is only now considered a crisis because it is being recognized. After years of long-form newspaper investigations to Frontline’s damning “League of Denial” excoriation from last year, there is little left to argue about, even as the National Football League’s minions fold, mutilate, and spin the truth like those Big Tobacco lawyers and lobbyists of old. The evidence gathered points to the average football player being, because they spend so much of their time slamming into large powerful men (who, thanks to specialized training and all those drugs the teams don’t know anything about, get larger and more powerful every year), more likely to die younger and have some kind of brain damage than the average citizen. Suicides, mental illness, depression, violence; it’s all the legacy of that slam-bang contest we fans cheer for.

This barbarousness is allowed to continue in a civilized society, Almond argues, because of how the NFL has stage-managed the sport. Having the help of a lamprey-like “bloated media cult” certainly helps. To Almond, the spectacle of modern football means watching “aggression granted a coherent, even heroic, context.” That line will ring true to anybody enthralled as a child by the exploits of those gigantic, larger-than-life combatants. We are not meant to see mere athletes out there, but warriors.

This sleight of hand is helped along by a few factors: the sport’s militaristic nature (coordinated units, tactics, maneuvers, lines of assault, blitzkriegs); those gorgeously snow-speckled and slow-motion Homeric epics churned out by the league’s “ministry of propaganda,” NFL Films; and actual military involvement. Fewer football games today are absent a visit from one branch of the armed services, not to mention the fluttering of flags on the giant display screens and even flyovers. Some games are so thick with patriotic militarism that it wouldn’t shock to see a procession of portable missile launchers being saluted, Soviet premier-like, by the good commissioner Roger Goodell.

For an illustrative example of what Almond terms our “imperial decadence,” witness the scene from the 2010 de Tocqueville-lite BBC series Stephen Fry in America. The British wit is happily taking in the Iron Bowl (Auburn University vs. University of Alabama), only to drop in fright at the sound of jets screaming overhead. Being British, Fry didn’t understand that an American college sporting event couldn’t be properly enjoyed without a display of military might.

Almond threads his critique of the Pentagon-NFL axis into a broader appraisal of how the American citizenry simultaneously valorizes and dehumanizes its heroes, whether on the football field or the field of battle:

The civilian and the fan participate in the same system. We off-load the moral burdens of combat, mostly to young men from the underclass, whom we send off to battle with hosannas and largely ignore when they return home disfigured in body and mind.

It is a paradoxical dynamic. After all, part of what it means to be a football fan is that we have a sophisticated appreciation for the game, and a deep respect for the players who compete at the highest level…But it turns out that our adulation…is highly conditional. As soon they no longer excel on the field, they become expendable.

Almond stalks through his arguments against the modern state of football at a pace that is both clipped and highly personal. There is a lot of shame here, a discomfort with being complicit in that “system” lying at the root of his angry screed. Like many a blue-state fan, his liberal nature is offended by being complicit in the advertorial-spewing, money-mad agglomeration of celebrity and cruelty that is the NFL and its media courtiers.

Some of Almond’s arguments tip toward a to-hell-with-all-that disgust. That sense is heightened in his vitriol against the league’s anti-labor practices and corporate welfare-piggery, which makes it all the more difficult to ever enjoy sitting in a stadium mostly built by public funds but the profits of which mostly go to whichever billionaire owns the local franchise. He doesn’t quite take it to the level of Noam Chomsky arguing in Manufacturing Consent that professional sports being just another way of “building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority and group cohesion…it’s training in irrational jingoism.” But he’s not far off.

The book’s tenor becomes so heated, in fact, that when Almond executes a deft spin into a “what do we do with football?” epilogue that tries to address what fans can do to humanize the corporate monster of football, the whiplash is severe.

There is something rushed in this book, as though it were powered out in a few heated marathon sessions. It leaves some of the book feeling thin. But this is a manifesto. It’s a broadsheet in book form meant to be powered by heat and what Almond refers to as his “obnoxious opinions.” As such, Against Football doesn’t have a strong and satisfying conclusion. No such piece written by a true fan likely could. Short of calling for abolition, there’s no easy way to resolve the issues raised here. Football is wired too deep into the national identity for it to be yanked out or wholly reworked without some pain.

In 1947, E.B. White published a playfully predictive New Yorker two-pager called “The Decline of Sport.” He imagined a future in which “sport gripped the nation in an ever-tightening grip” and the workweek was reduced to three days, “to give everyone a better chance to memorize the scores.” The mania builds and builds until, at a game with 954,000 spectators, a deranged man shoots one of his team’s receivers dead after the player dropped a scoring pass. The bubble bursts:

From that day on, sport waned. Through long, noncompetitive Saturday afternoons, the stadia slumbered…the parkways fell into disuse as motorists rediscovered the charms of old, twisty roads that led through main streets and past barnyards, with their mild congestions and pleasant smells.

Against Football is a book that kicks and prods and fights with itself and ourselves. Almond is asking himself and us to drop the ironic distance, open our eyes, and truly look at the dangerous, vile, beautiful, fun, highly corrupted, and horrifically corrupting corporate behemoth we spend so much of our money and leisure time enraptured by, and know what it is that we are doing, and what we are supporting. Part of that process might be just taking a couple steps back, shaking off the spell.

Maybe a few more drives down old, twisty roads would do us all some good.

One Long Country Song: What Friday Night Lights Taught Me About Storytelling

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I recently re-watched the first season of Friday Night Lights—for fun, but also to see how it held up, eight years after it first aired, and probably at least a decade after it was first conceived of and written. I had actually never seen the pilot or the first six episodes because, initially, Friday Night Lights was my husband’s show, something he watched by himself. I now love the show so much that it’s hard to believe there was a time when I wasn’t interested in it, but I remember thinking that it didn’t seem like the kind of show I would like. I don’t enjoy watching football and I don’t usually enjoy watching teenage actors—or, rather, I don’t enjoy watching actors in their early twenties impersonate teenagers. I was also resistant to Friday Night Lights because it is set in a conservative, rural area that reminded me of where I went to high school. Like a lot of people who move to New York City, I came here to get away from small town life.

The strange thing about watching Friday Night Lights again is that I think the fiction I’ve been writing for the past few years was inspired by it. I’ve joked with friends about this line of influence but I didn’t quite believe it until I re-watched the show and saw how much I’d borrowed. I know we’re living in the golden age of so-called novelistic TV, but I still think of books as being in conversation with other books, not with nighttime soap operas. However, when I look back over the past five years, I can see that my stories were very much in conversation with a TV show whose characters became so real to me it was as if they were living lives parallel to my own.

I watched Friday Night Lights in real time, as it aired. I wonder if it would have been as much of an influence if I had “binged-watched” all five seasons back-to-back in one or two months’ time. Instead, the show stretched out over the course of five years, 2006-2011, which for me were years when I had to throw out most of the fiction I wrote. They were years when I was trying to “find my voice”—that cringe-inducing expression that is nevertheless a fair description of what I was looking for as I tried to decide what I would write and how I would write about it. During these years, my primary search technique was to read as many different authors as possible and to write a certain number of words per day. At night I watched television to relax.

I might have given up on this whole process if I had not finally published a short story in 2008, the year I turned thirty. The story was set in my hometown, a location I had always resisted using, but which I felt compelled to revisit. That compulsion, I am quite sure, was due to Friday Night Lights. The show helped me to see my hometown in a new light—but not a nostalgic one. I did not watch Friday Night Lights to relive my glorious high school years, and certainly not to relive the glory of high school football. But one of the interesting things about Friday Night Lights, and something that struck me as I re-watched it, is that for a drama about high school students and football, there are very few scenes set in school or on the football field. Instead, the show is more interested in the personal lives of its players—the families they come from, the romances that enmesh them, the houses they live in and the things they do for fun. It’s a show that is very interested in family life in all its varieties. There are a lot of single parents in Friday Night Lights and a lot of unmarried couples, too. It’s a show where families are makeshift, where older brothers and grandmothers can stand in for absent fathers, where teenage girls have to mother themselves and sometimes their boyfriends, too. Watching Friday Night Lights, you realize how conservative other shows are in their portrayal of American families[1].

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how or why something inspires you, but I think Friday Night Lights got me thinking about the adults I’d grown up with, adults whose personal lives I’d never fully imagined because I was a kid, living my kid-life. I began to look back on my childhood in a different way, to think less about how I lived and more about how other people lived. Maybe this recalibration is just part of growing up and leaving one’s self-centered twenties, and maybe it would have happened anyway, without the nudge of Friday Night Lights, but the show did seem to stir up old memories. It was fascinating to think again of families I’d babysat for, to reexamine their houses, their professions, their cars, their clothes. I began to think about my teachers and mentors, my coaches, and my friends’ parents. Many of them were in their thirties (my age) when I knew them. I wondered: What were their lives really like? What were their secret dramas? What would I ask them if I could go back in time?

In 2009, I finished a novel but could not find an agent to represent it. In retrospect, I can see that it was an apprentice novel, and that even though it had narrative cohesion, it couldn’t really stand on its own. It didn’t have the spark of life. It was set in New York City, where I have lived for the past thirteen years, but when I started that novel, I had only five years under my belt, and was still utterly infatuated with Manhattan and its delusional vibrations, an energy Zadie Smith recently described as a “sociopathic illusion of limitlessness.” My novel reflected some of that energy. The characters lived in their own melodramatic reality, and even though that was kind of the point—these characters were in their twenties—the book had an airless feeling. The setting wasn’t real enough. A few years after I had finished it (and finally given up on it), I met a novelist who had moved to the South after years in the Midwest. I told him I had tried to write about New York but couldn’t, and he said he’d had the same problem in the South. He said he thought it took about ten years to be able to write about a particular place—much longer than any writer wants to admit. How long does it take to write about where you grew up? In my case, that took about ten years, too—ten years away.

In the wake of my failed first novel—I saw it as failed then, now I see it as a necessary step—I decided to focus on a series of short stories set in the various “small” places my family had lived. This was partly to do with the success of my first short story, which had been set in my hometown, but also because of Dillon, the fictional Texas town where Friday Night Lights is set. Dillon, a small, unglamorous, rural Texas town, is something like the small, unglamorous towns I grew up in. For years, I had operated under the assumption that the places I knew best were not very interesting. This was due to my own insecurities and also to my intense love of all things New York City. But, my infatuation with the city began to wane around 2008. That was the year the financial markets crashed—a situation I couldn’t help thinking of when I read Smith’s phrase, “sociopathic illusion of limitlessness.” It was the year I started to think about failure, really think about it. I was three years into an ill-fitting secretarial job at a Wall Street law firm, a job that I knew would only become more ill-fitting as the recession unspooled. New York did not seem like a good place to fail. In fact, it seemed like a place where I was not allowed to even speak or think of the possibility of failure.

One of the things I like about Dillon is that it welcomes failures; in fact it embraces them. Growing up in small towns, I always felt there was something bullying about this love of failure, and that there was within it a not-so-hidden class resentment, a desire to keep everyone on the same level, even if that meant everything was mediocre. I do think that sentiment exists, but I also think there is a humanity to small places, an acknowledgement that people need space in their lives to enjoy what they have, for as long as it may last—a space outside of accomplishment. A space outside of self-improvement. A space to have emotions that might not be “productive.” A space to have emotions, period.

Many critics have focused on the intense emotionality of Friday Night Lights, the way it aims to make you cry in every episode. My husband and I always joke that we are in need of tissues as soon as the theme music cuts in—usually after a short, three-minute scene where someone acts their guts out and delivers a major plot twist. I always find myself thinking, these people live such big lives in such a small place! But then when I think about what feels “big” about their lives I realize that the plot points (save for a few bizarre episodes in Season 2) are quite ordinary. No one on Friday Night Lights has a secret identity. No one is working for the mafia or hunting terrorists. No one is cooking meth in order to pay for cancer treatments. No one even gets cancer in Dillon! Instead, they’re drinking too much. They’re sleeping around. They’re saying stupid things and trying to make extra money in a variety of stupid ways. They’re founding Christian rock bands and trying out for quad rugby teams. They’re perusing real estate listings and filling out insurance forms[2]. They’re buying cars and driving cars and fixing cars. Someone is always waiting for a ride. Someone is always heartbroken. Someone is always broke. Friday Night Lights is one long country song. Anyone can relate.

The truth is that Friday Night Lights actually had a lot of trouble finding its audience, or at least one large enough for network television. But the people who love Friday Night Lights are passionate about it. They love the characters[3], and they love them in a particular way. People swoon over Coach Taylor and they really swoon over Tami Taylor, but what they really, really swoon over is the relationship between Coach and Tami, not only the particular chemistry between the actors who play these characters (Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton), but the way their marriage is portrayed, quotidian scene by quotidian scene. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Daniel Mendelsohn described it as one of “the finest representations of middle-class marriage in popular culture.” I’m not always sure what people mean when they refer to something as middle-class but one definition of middle-class life is one where both parents work, but not so much that they can’t have dinner together. In Friday Night Lights, you often see Coach and Tami having dinner together. You see them cooking it and cleaning it up, too. You see them going out and staying in, running late and running errands. You see them joking and flirting, arguing and making up. You see them discussing their jobs, their daughter, their worries. You see two people who are not just in love but who genuinely like spending a lot of time together.

The Taylor’s marriage holds the show together plot-wise, and also in terms of tone. Friday Night Lights is about the bonds between people, and in particular, the way that people in small towns have unusual access to one another’s personal lives. When you live in a small town, it’s possible to run into your daughter’s boyfriend buying condoms in the drug store, to clean up broken glass in the home of a student you advise, or to obtain a pregnancy test from the mother of your husband’s star running back. These things all happened to Tami Taylor, and they didn’t seem far-fetched, even the last one, a late-in-life pregnancy that seemed designed to lure in new viewers. (Coach and Tami’s second daughter was born in between seasons 1 and 2 and had almost no bearing on the rest of the show.) It helps that the actors on the show can pull off even the most saccharine dialogue, but the real trick is the way the show makes you want to watch the characters interact in different combinations. You know they all know each other, and furthermore, you know what they know (and don’t know) about each other, so you can’t wait to see how that plays out in their interactions. It’s dramatic irony on a very small scale. It’s the lifeblood of domestic fiction.

In a 2011 Grantland interview, Don DeLillo was asked what sporting event he would choose to dramatize if he were going to undertake another novel on the scale of Underworld set in post-Cold War America. (As opposed to Underworld, which was set during the Cold War era.) With his usual prescience, DeLillo answered: “To portray America over the past twenty years or so, I would think immediately of football, probably the Super Bowl in its sumptuous suggestion of a national death wish.”

It has been disconcerting to re-watch the first season of Friday Night Lights in light of debates about football’s culture of violence. The recent domestic abuse scandals hadn’t yet made headlines when I watched the majority of the episodes, but I often thought of the long-simmering arguments about whether or not football is too dangerous to be played. It is, to say the least, a heated argument. On the one hand, there is Steve Almond’s new book Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto, which details his own football fandom and disillusionment as he comes to terms with how badly the sport treats its players as well as the values it represents. (I have not yet read Almond’s book but apparently there is within it a critique of Friday Night Lights.) On the other side of the debate, there’s Jonathan Chait defending the sport in New York Magazine, arguing that his boyhood years playing football were unforgettably exciting, and that the sport allows young men to channel their anger in healthy and productive ways. In his view, the debate over football’s potential dangers is a classic red-state/blue-state conflict, “a safety-reform movement mutating into a culture war, where one part of America rises in visceral, often-uncomprehending revulsion against the values and mores of another.” Then we have President Obama, attempting to split the difference, as always, in a New Yorker profile, conceding that he would never allow his son to play the game but that he enjoys watching it.

I can’t help wondering how Friday Night Lights would have chosen to address these issues if it were airing today. (Actually, maybe a better question: Would Friday Night Lights even make it onto the air today?) You could argue that the show deals with the sport’s potential for life-altering injury in its very first episode, when Dillon’s star quarterback, Jason Street, tackles another player so aggressively that he damages his own spinal column. The injury paralyzes Jason Street for life, and for the rest of the first season, we follow him as he undergoes his rehabilitation. That’s the reality of football, the show seems to say—except that the characters never say that. They treat Jason Street’s injury as something freakish, even surprising. When Jason Street’s parents file a lawsuit against Coach Taylor and the school, they are portrayed as desperate and a touch villainous.

On my second viewing of Friday Night Lights, I had trouble with the football scenes and especially the lawsuit. The question of whether or not Coach had taught Jason Street appropriate tackling techniques is brushed over as a kind of pesky lawyer’s question, but I wanted it to be taken more seriously. At the very least, I wanted Coach to be guiltier about what had happened. He doesn’t seem to suffer much remorse or rethink his training methods. Every time I watched Coach give a pep talk or advise a player, I could only really think of poor Jason Street, sitting in his hospital bed, having to relearn how to grip a fork. Later in the season, Jason Street returns to the field as part of the coaching staff, so he’s literally on the sidelines in his wheelchair, a reminder to everyone of how dangerous the sport is. It’s bizarre, and darkly ironic—but it’s not intended that way. Instead, we’re meant to see Street’s coaching position as a point of resolution; we’re supposed to be glad he’s found a way to integrate football back into his life, despite the fact that he has been maimed by it.

But how self-aware does a television show (or a novel?) have to be to say something meaningful about the era it portrays? One thing that makes television an interesting medium is that the writers have to work quickly to absorb changing cultural attitudes into their narratives. In an apt literary metaphor, Emily Nussbaum recently described network TV shows as “the rough draft that doubles as the polished product.” A network series can’t afford to be dated and yet there is no way to digest what is happening quickly enough. The writers of Friday Night Lights were surely seeing newspaper headlines linking head injuries in football to depression, suicide, and Alzheimer’s disease. But they were stuck in Dillon, writing about a community that is defined by its love of football.

And yet, I wonder if Friday Night Lights would have worked so well as a drama if it didn’t have that unacknowledged darkness at its center. Even if it wasn’t intentional, the show’s secret relationship to self-destruction (alcoholism is a persistent plot point) says a lot about the era in which it was aired. As DeLillo put it so well, the aughts were a decade when there was within America “a sumptuous suggestion of a national death wish.” I wrote that phrase down when I first read it (it has the same moodiness of Zadie Smith’s “sociopathic illusion of limitlessness”) and afterwards noticed many sumptuous suggestions of death wishes, from the expensive wars we’ve wages overseas, to our Gilded Age-gap between rich and poor, to our elaborate resistance to universal healthcare.

Before I get too political, let me return to fiction, which, unless you are a satirist, is hard to shape around political ideals. Friday Night Lights is above all things, not a satire. It takes its characters and their problems very seriously and treats them with a sincerity that is rare on network television. It doesn’t make fun of its characters for coming from a small place[4] or, more crucially, for not wanting to leave a small place. Many of the writers I admire most—Alice Munro, Marilynne Robinson, and Stephanie Vaughn, to name a few that come to mind immediately—share this deep sincerity, this interest in characters who may not be worldly, but who live in the world and who love it.

As much as I love satire, (and I do, despite evidence to the contrary in this essay), I am never going to write it. A good friend recently confessed that she gave up trying to make jokes years ago because, “Even though I laugh a lot, I am not a funny person.” And we both laughed, because there’s something funny about being ashamed about not being able to joke about everything. But, in an age when comedians earn multi-million dollar book deals, an earnest temperament can make you feel irrelevant. Sometimes I think Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiographical novels registered as something new simply because he takes his life seriously and doesn’t caveat his long-winded existential musings with “So, this is a first-world problem, but…”

It’s funny to me that it took a network television show to remind me that I could write in a straightforward way, that I don’t need to shock or be elusive, and that I don’t need to impress anyone with my cleverness or my prose-style. All I have to do is to write about the people and places that mean the most to me. Almost all the short stories I wrote during my years of watching Friday Night Lights were published, even the ones I thought of as too ordinary. In the meantime, I’ve been working on a novel. I showed a draft to my husband this summer and one of the first things he said when he was finished reading was, “this would make a great television show.” If he’d said that about my first novel I might have been annoyed. But now I consider it a high compliment.

[1] In terms of depictions of family life, an interesting point of comparison is the nighttime drama Parenthood, which premiered in 2010, and whose showrunner is Jason Katims, who was also a producer of Friday Night Lights. Parenthood has the same tear-jerking-deep-down-everyone’s-doing-the-best-they-can-vibe as Friday Night Lights and uses some of the same actors, but its vision of American family life borders on fantastical. As much as I want to believe in the sunny world of Parenthood, I don’t know anyone who hangs out with their extended family as much as the Bravermans do.

[2] I was taken aback when I realized that the cliffhanger of the first season of Friday Night Lights is how Coach will handle a long-distance relationship after Coach takes a new job. I can’t think of another drama in which such a low-stakes plot point would be considered exciting enough to hook in viewers for the next season.

[3] While I was writing this essay, I met an adorable dog named Tim Riggins, and I saw a pet adoption flyer for a beautiful cat named Lyla Garrity.

[4] Despite the warmth and sweetness of shows like The Office and Parks & Rec, their small-town settings are an ongoing joke.

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