Andres O'Hara-Plotnik


Talking to Strangers, Writing Out of Context

Friday Night Lights
(Dustin Jamison, Flickr)

In 1988, Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Buzz Bissinger spent a year in Odessa, Texas, writing about the high school football season of the Permian Panthers for the book Friday Night Lights.

Bissinger writes in the preface:

I met the members of the 1988 Permian Panther football team, and for the next four months I was with them through every practice, every meeting, every game, to chronicle the highs and lows of being a high school football player in a town such as this. I went to school with them, and home with them, and rattlesnake hunting with them, and to church with them…

It’s an interesting preface. Maybe he wants to say that he has good authority to write from so many different perspectives. It also suggests that he managed to blend in, that people in Odessa became used to him there, and acted naturally, without regard to the person who was there to write a book about them.

In 1988, Odessa is obsessed with the Permian Panthers winning the state championship. Most people are arrogantly proud of their fanaticism. The town considers the players to be heroes, and these high school kids are hooked on that mentality. Since elementary school, boys are constantly told, and shown, that the biggest accomplishment they could achieve would be to play football for the Permian Panthers.

Bissinger describes this culture with a mix of history, interviews, and commentary. The writing is tremendous. It is extremely well reported, giving you a feel for the smallest details of the sights and sounds of the towns of West Texas. The descriptions of the football games are some of the best play by play sentences I have ever read. But there is also compassion and empathy for these football players, boys who have the entire town watching their every move. Bissinger closely explores the desires of these high school football players, how they deal with the expectation of upholding the reputation of their town, and how they fall from grace once they stop winning games.

Unsurprisingly, the book’s publication caused a huge backlash in Odessa. In the afterword to the book, he wrote:

When Friday Night Lights was first published in September of 1990, it set off a storm of controversy in Odessa that still flares at the very mention of the book’s name. Shortly after its release, I was scheduled to do a series of appearances in Odessa as part of a tour. But the trip was  cancelled after several bookstore owners said that threats of bodily harm had been made against me…. Over the years I have been accused of betrayal, and sensationalism, and taking information out of context, and mis-quoting…

You hear these terms often when critical stories come out about government, religious, or corporate leaders: my words were taken out of context. I wondered, what type of context would these detractors have been satisfied with?

One particularly damning scene in the book comes to mind. The Panther’s coaches are discussing the injury of Boobie Miles, one of the few black players, who quit the team after tearing the ligament in his knee.

“It’s hard for me to feel sorry for someone who already shit in his bed,” said Trapper, convinced that Boobie had been nothing but a quitter even before his surgery.

“The sad part is, there are thousands of Boobies all over this world,” said Gaines. “A lot of them don’t have a chance, welfare cases. He had several. He had a chance to fight back and he threw up his skirt.”

On the practice field, a trio of men gathered one afternoon to joke about his plight. One of them suggested that maybe it was best for Boobie just to kill himself since he didn’t have football anymore.

“No,” one of them objected. “When a horse pulls up lame, you don’t waste a bullet on him.” There was unrestrained laughter and the three enjoyed the analogy of comparing Boobie to an animal. It was repeated.

“You don’t waste a bullet on a horse.”

These are private conversations. They involve like minded people talking casually, and you read it and feel like you’re eavesdropping. Yet here they are, for anyone to read. Bissinger’s year in Odessa, shadowing every movement of the Panther’s, did not just allow him to witness the day to day lives of the people he was recording, but apparently allowed them to forget that he was there.

But how else could people in Odessa have acted? If the culture of Odessa is to be loud and proud, then how would you be seen around your peers if you suddenly because discreet and quiet when around a journalist? It would seem like you were a fake, that you were not proud of your personality and your culture.

This conversation, and most throughout the book, happen in an insular culture, where certain people speak freely without concern that they will be challenged. In that sense, the very act of publishing these stories does take them out of context: anyone can read these conversations, without feeling compelled to nod along in agreement.


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This entry was posted on July 12, 2013 by in Books and tagged , , , , , .
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