SOC 423 Georgia Military Community College Sociology of Sport Essay

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Sociology 423
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Short Response (2 questions x 20 points = 40 points)
1. Briefly summarize the major ideas of the Dyreson article. How does the Dyreson article
challenge our preconceived notions (or “common sense”) of sport? What conclusions does he
reach about the role of sport in society?
2. How do the Barthes and Phillips readings discuss the role of sport in society? Specifically,
how do they use the concepts of justice and morality in relation to sport? How do the subjects
Barthes and Phillips examine (wrestling and a TV show) demonstrate a desire to keep intact
the myths we have about sport?
Essay (1 question x 60 points = 60 points)
1. Explain the modernization of sport. How did we end up with the dominant sport forms that
we have around the globe today? Your answer should pay attention to: technology, gender
(masculinity/femininity), religion, race/racism, imperialism/colonialism. The best answers
will draw on the readings.
1
Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can Lose: Friday Night
Lights and the Myth of the Rewarding of Morality
in Sports
BENJAMIN P. PHILLIPS
I
N 1990, H.G. BISSINGER EXPLORED HOW A HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL TEAM IN ODESSA,
Texas, transfixed and defined a town in his book, Friday Night Lights. Following the
success of the Pulitzer Prize-winning expose, the story of high school football in
Texas found its way to both the big screen and the world of television. In 2006, Friday
Night Lights premiered on NBC, depicting the fictional story of the West Texas town of
Dillon and the Dillon High School Panthers. But, because of NBC’s attempt to market
the show as a “football show,” it failed to gain a wider audience and also failed to keep
its presumed audience— teens and football fans. Part of the problem can be found in
the tendency to view sports as an escape, and the show did not treat it as such. Through
its characters and the town itself, FNL’s pilot episode reveals the traps of small-town life
and the fallacy of the competing and arguably antithetical myths of sports as escape from
everyday life, but also redemptive and rewarding of hard work and morality. Football is
often linked to the affirmation of the American Dream: work ethic, sacrifice, and the
importance of every person leading to success and a better life. Yet, this is rarely the case
in practice. While our society loves stories about the Horatio Alger-like underdog, these
stories are the exceptions, not the rule. Much more than a football show, Friday Night
Lights complicates the myths that sports are morally just or, when seemingly unjust, an
escape. The show demonstrates that sports are neither an escape nor virtuous, but a
reflection and, often, an exacerbator of problems already present in the everyday world of
Americans. This provocative attempt to expose the lies of football’s mythology, rather
than unquestioningly celebrating sports, resulted in low ratings and five years of cancellation threats for the critically acclaimed, but misunderstood show.
Friday Night Lights tells the story of the Dillon Panthers football team and the community of Dillon. Much of the story focuses on Coach Eric Taylor and his family. Taylor
has recently been hired as the head football coach and must adapt to the perks, pressures,
and annoyances of the job. His wife Tami and he enjoy a loving relationship together,
where each plays a fairly equal role in the partnership. Their daughter Julie cares little
for football, reveling in the arts and education instead. Rounding out the cast are various
players, students, and members of the community. The show strives for realism by
depicting racial tensions, class struggles, gender inequalities, and regional differences
(Berg, “Peter Berg”). While the show utilizes football as the catalyst for the plot, the
bulk of the stories play out in the world surrounding the game. Even when the game
The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 47, No. 5, 2014
© 2014 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
990
Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can Lose
991
serves as the focal point in episodes, the camera makes sure to catch the facial expressions, body language, and dialog of the characters to capture the emotional responses of
the community of Dillon. Show creator and writer Peter Berg, in an interview with Fresh
Air, reveals that he often films scenes in actual locations, with local townspeople as
extras, and instructs the actors to improvise many of their lines and to interrupt each
other while the cameras keep rolling until he runs out of film in an effort to create an
“organic” conversation. Jesse Plemons, who plays Landry Clark on the show, reveals that
the actors do not rehearse the scenes before filming: “We kind of look at the script as a
guideline. We try to definitely hit all the points in a scene, but we’re allowed to change
the lines around to kind of fit us and fit our characters” (Plemons). From the beginning,
FNL tries to present a believable world beyond the football field, rather than scripted
scenes.
The episode under analysis is the pilot episode which aired on NBC-TV in 2006.
The first half of the episode details the hype leading up to the game on Friday night,
including radio call-in shows, pep rallies, news crews, and personal moments of reflection. Within the game itself, the highly ranked Panthers find themselves trailing the
underdog Westerby Mustangs late in the fourth quarter. Senior quarterback Jason Street
throws an interception and—while tackling the defender and forcing a fumble—severely
injures his spine. Street is carted off of the field in a neck brace, and unproven and softspoken sophomore Matt Saracen steps in to save the day, mounting a miraculous comeback. The episode ends with the Panther players coming together at the hospital to visit
Jason Street, as Coach Taylor attempts to comfort the family.
Originally, the show was marketed to teens and football fans, but the ratings did not
reflect that the show reached its intended market. Perhaps doomed from the start at
8:00 on Tuesday nights, the show faced off against the ratings-hit, Dancing With the
Stars, and lacked a lead-in show to bring an audience to it. The following year, NBC
moved it to Wednesday nights, disrupting any audience base the show had gained, to
avoid an even bigger juggernaut—American Idol. On top of that, no multi-season sports
drama had aired in primetime on network television since CBS’s basketball drama, The
White Shadow, 25 years earlier. Sports are seen as entertainment, and audiences expect a
show about sports, even a scripted one, to focus on sports and to celebrate sports. As
more and more people unsubscribe from cable and satellite and rely on streaming video
services, sports remain some of the only “appointment” shows (shows that people are
willing to watch live) left on television. The liveness of sports demands that it be
watched in the moment. There is a felt sense that the viewer is somehow missing out on
the excitement of the game if it is viewed later, especially if the viewer already knows
the outcome. While people try to avoid “spoilers” for scripted television or reality shows,
viewers will still watch shows that have been spoiled for them.
With a sporting event, knowing the end result takes away much of the motive for
watching it. Aside from “classic” games—games involving a comeback, an outstanding
series of events, a well-played rivalry game, or a championship—reruns for sports do not
occur. Instead, viewers rely on highlights of individual moments deemed important to
the outcome or to the viewers. The rest is filler and gets weeded out of the replayed
narrative. With the advent of ESPN in 1979, the daily highlight reel became not just
an add-on at the end of a newscast, but a show in and of itself. With it came discussion
panels, analysis segments, and a growing importance placed on televised sports. Soon,
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Benjamin P. Phillips
even the NFL Draft became a televised, multiday event watched by millions. Televised
discussions of athletes, their lives off of the court/field/track/ring, and issues surrounding
sport itself became a burgeoning industry and helped to push sports into the monetary
juggernaut it is today.
These were serious, deeply engaged discussions of athletes and their play on and off
of the field, but, in fictionalized television portrayals, sports were depicted as lighthearted and redemptive, instilling values needed for success in sports and in American
life. The sitcom Coach (1989–1997) cared more about the characters involved in the
administration of a college football team than the sport, but football was included as a
punch line and a storytelling device. Similarly, NBC’s Bay City Blues (1983) found
humor in the lives of a minor league baseball team, but it only aired for four episodes.
ESPN produced and aired a football drama, Playmakers (2003), but the show only lasted
one season. It focused on a fictionalized professional football team and followed the lives
of the team’s players and the challenges they faced both on and off of the field. For a
cable network, the show received high ratings, but it was canceled due to pressure from
the NFL for portraying professional football in a negative light (Sandomir). The NFL
had a monetary motivation to protect the myths of sports as escapism or as morally validating. The Hoop Life (1999), produced and aired by Showtime, focused on a professional
basketball team but did not have the licensing agreement with the NBA (much like
Playmakers and the NFL), dooming the believability of the show; it lasted only two seasons. The show that drew in viewers and had prolonged success was the sitcom Coach
that poked lighthearted fun at football while still celebrating it. Sports dramas did not
fare as well, suggesting that viewers wanted to laugh at and with sports rather than analyze its flaws and inconsistencies.
A more apt comparison to Friday Night Lights would be the aforementioned CBS
show, The White Shadow (1978–1981). The show chronicled a white, former-NBA player
who moved to an urban high school in South Central Los Angeles to coach its basketball
team. To this day, the show is still one of the longest running dramas to feature a predominantly African-American cast. Unlike other shows at the time, African Americans
had starring roles, and not just as stereotypes, orphans, or clowns. While the show often
employed happy endings and invited the audience to laugh along with it, it did not
pretend that sports solved social problems or that those problems did not exist. In one
episode, a cousin of a player on the team dies after a drug overdose. His distraught
cousin quits school, buys a gun, goes in search of the drug dealer, and holds a gun to
the dealer’s head (Simmons, “The White Shadow”). He does not pull the trigger, but it
certainly is not the uplifting message we expect in a sports story.
Despite the realism of the show, it failed to satisfy the network or garner high ratings. Bill Simmons, a sports columnist and fan of the show, remembers that white characters were added to the cast—likely under the assumption that a white audience would
be more comfortable watching and cheering for white characters—celebrities were
brought in for cameos, and every week seemed to become a “very special episode,” creating an overly dramatic narrative that seemed just as unbelievable as an entirely celebratory one. Simmons has wondered why television sports dramas like the White Shadow do
not work: “Given the number of Americans who follow sports and watch television,
Hollywood should churn out provocative, entertaining sports-related shows every few
years” (“Be Good Sports”).
Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can Lose
993
In contrast to television, sports movies do quite well and are beloved by fans, but
perhaps it is the episodic nature of television that is the problem for sports dramas.
Audiences are willing to watch Roy Hobb’s struggles to play big-league baseball in The
Natural (1984), but are they willing to watch a television series chronicling his struggles
week after week to overcome a gunshot wound to the stomach? The film allows us to see
a shortened version of Hobb’s tribulations while still having a celebratory payoff at the
end as he shatters the lights with a mammoth homerun. Likewise, we can face the
unglamorous life of lifetime, minor-league ballplayer “Crash” Davis, but only for
108 minutes in Bull Durham (1988), and the audience is still rewarded with Davis
breaking the minor-league record for homeruns and ending up with his love interest.
Conversely, when the hero fails and the good guys lose, there is something unsettling
about it, but in a movie the suffering is brief rather than episodic, as in The Bad News
Bears (1976), Little Big League (1994), or Friday Night Lights (2004). David W. Zang
notes that sports films where the heroes lose often are received poorly by audiences when
they do not “proclaim sport’s redemptive might” (153). The redemptive narrative of
sports and the myth that hard work and a positive attitude will triumph while a selfish
one is doomed to failure are challenged and the audience is left unsatisfied. These narratives challenge rather than entertain.
The audience is willing to believe that sports are more than escapism when they
affirm a moral or redemptive belief, but not when they challenge it. Then, the moral
myth is protected by invoking the myth of escapism. And this is the problem with fictionalized sports that attempt to portray realism. In sporting contests, the viewer is
stuck with the result of the game, be it favorable or heartbreaking, morally fair or seemingly unwarranted. But, in fictionalized sports, the heroes do not have to lose. They can
stand for hard work, sacrifice, and morality. Cockiness and poor sportsmanship can be
punished. If a player works hard to overcome some challenge in his life he can score the
winning touchdown and fulfill sports’ redemptive and moral narrative. When a sports
show strives for realism, like FNL, it breaks the illusion. Morality is not necessarily satisfied by sports. Sports, like life, are not always fair, but we want to believe that they are
and that morality will be rewarded. When examples of this rewarding occur, they are
held up as proof of the naturalness of the myth. But, when the myth is challenged and
the moral hero loses or questionable character wins, the moral myth must be protected.
In this case, the myth of sports as escape must be invoked. In that way, through confirmation bias, the moral myth of sports can be protected and affirmed. Athletes or pundits
who point out racism, unfairness, inequality, and so on, in sports, are met with denials
and calls to leave political issues out of sports, as it is just a game or an escape and somehow unaffected by larger societal issues. But, when the soft-spoken hero comes through
with the game-winning play, sports are allowed to be and are celebrated as more than an
escape; morality is justified. Fictional sports dramas attempting to portray realism confront the contradictory myths of sports, denying the audience its happy endings and
moral justifications, providing realism but making audiences less likely to tune in next
week. We accept the unfairness of life in courtroom dramas, hospitals, and cop shows
because they are not seen as areas of escape in everyday life. But sports, and especially
fictionalized sports, are presumed to be an escape from having to watch the good guys
lose.
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And this is one of the reasons why FNL failed to reach its intended audience or even
a large audience during its first season (or any season, for that matter). Originally, NBC
assumed that the show would appeal to high school aged students and fans of high
school football, neither of which want to be reminded of their mortality or the negative
consequences of sports. NBC signed a deal with Bebo.com, a high school networking
Web site, to promote the show. They invited viewers to upload videos and blog about
their high school experiences and compare them with the world of the show. NBC also
sent promotional “goodies” to students in influential television markets (Johns). Select
“winners” who posted on the website were offered $5000 scholarships to a college of
their choice. Lisa Seward, a media director hired by NBC, argued that students cared
deeply about high school football, and the website would “[give] them the tools to [discuss football and high school life], the tools to do it, the place to do it and the incentive
in the form of scholarships” (Blum). Similarly, the network teamed up with Toyota to
run a sweepstakes for teenagers in which they could win an appearance with their friends
on the show and $50,000 for their school’s athletic department (“NBC, Toyota Pair
. . .”). The show had been marketed as a football show in promotional videos and campaigns, yet the realism of the show and its depiction of the unpredictable trauma of life
differed from the expectations of dramatic football victories suggested by the marketing
campaign.
In truth, it was hard to anticipate who the audience for FNL would be. A primetime
sports drama had not been aired in decades on network television, and the complicated
and challenging messages sent by FNL about sports likely did not sit well with those
who bought into the sporting myths. Addressing the low viewership, NBC realized that
they did not have a sports show on their hands, but a primetime, character-driven soap
opera that just happened to be set around a high school football team (McDowell). Executives believed that women would be a more appropriate audience for the show and
started a rebranding campaign. They felt that women, stereotypically assumed to be
turned off by a football show, would be more likely to watch a high school soap opera.
With this in mind, they began to show reruns on Bravo, a sister-station thought to
appeal to women and gay men, and streamed episodes of the show online to increase
viewership. Simultaneously, NBC aired 30-second promos at movie theaters over the
holiday break containing fan testimonials from both men and women about the show,
and online clips followed with the tagline, “It’s About Life,” to reassure a new viewership that the show was not a football show (Ibid.).
A passionate fan base, drawn in by the show’s dramatic realism, developed over the
following seasons, despite confusing time shifts and airdates. Likewise, critics loved the
show. Virginia Heffernon of the New York Times predicted that it “could be great—and
not just television great, but great in the way of a poem or painting, great in the way of
art with a single obsessive creator who does not have to consult with a committee and
has months or years to go back and agonize over line breaks and the color red.” Heather
Havrilesky of Salon declared it was “a drama that tackles the sweetness and the awkwardness of high school like no other show I’ve ever seen. In fact, compared to the originality
and realism of Friday Night Lights, other TV shows about high school look as idealized
and as silly as an Archie comic book” (“Bright lights, big pity”). In 2013, the Writers
Guild of America ranked it as one of the best written series of all-time (“101 Best Written TV Series. . .”), and it won numerous awards, including an Emmy for writing and
Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can Lose
995
for lead actor Kyle Chandler in 2011. But despite critical acclaim and praise, the show
struggled to find a wider audience and annually remained on the bubble for cancellation.
The show analyzed high school football and small-town life through realism: pointing
out both the good and the bad. But far too many potential viewers, because of initial
marketing, were already convinced it would be a show celebrating high school football.
And for those who anticipated a positive show about sports, the expected escapism and/
or moral glorification of a fictionalized game were denied.
Friday night football (both in the show and in real life) does not just represent an
escape from the working world or academic pursuits; it is an escape from the everyday.
Elliot J. Gorn and Warren Goldstein argue that leisure activities grew in America since
its colonial days as “a mythical ideal and a counterpoint to the necessity of daily labor”
(6). They emphasize that “games were cultural glue, binding men together with shared
identity, despite the class divisions produced by England’s intensely hierarchical and
aristocratic social system,” and this early notion has persisted in the American understanding of sports (8). The divisions in everyday life do not disappear in sports; they
remain, but are often buried under a belief in the democratic nature of sport: hard work
and sacrifice will lead to success and the team player works for a common goal, yet is
still important as an individual. In Dillon, players put aside the worries of life to concentrate on trips to the end zone, defensive stops, and perfectly booted field goals. The
joys and tribulations of the Panthers are still compounded by the worries of the gridiron,
but they can be forgotten each season as hope springs eternal. Like the memories of the
addict, the lows of the gridiron are forgotten with the beginning of each new season,
and the cycle continues. The lows do not disappear entirely; they are merely temporarily
blocked from thought.
In the pilot, already at dawn on a Monday morning, radio callers are moved to comment on the upcoming season and offer their own expert opinion on the matter. Sports
scholars Randy Roberts and James Olson’s observations about sporting loyalties ring true
for the high school team and Dillon: “Sports teams were closely identified with city
boosterism and community identity. A people wanted to know how their city compared
to others, and sports competition became one measure of quality” (49). The people of
Dillon and their identities are deeply tied to the Dillon Panthers and help them define
their place in the world, echoing sports writer Leonard Koppett’s observation that a
“team’s triumphs and defeats are taken as a reflection of the community as a whole, even
by those who pay no attention at all to the sports scene as such” (28).
Coach Taylor’s success and acceptance within the community is tied to his success on
the football field. After a stressful Monday of practice, Tami Taylor half-jokingly urges
Eric to take a head coaching job in Alaska in order to avoid the invasive community of
Dillon. Caring little for football, their fifteen-year-old daughter Julie aptly draws an
analogy between Dillon and Moby-Dick. She identifies the “cold black sea” as the “season
and all of its uncertainties;” the illusive white whale is a State Championship, while the
whalers are the players and the coaches. The team’s boastful black running back stands
in for Queequeg, an uncivilized “o\Other,” but still needed for his skills. Julie lastly
describes her father as Coach Ahab, “the coach, captain, hunter, hunted; driven near the
point of utter insanity. Driven to capture the possibly uncapturable.” As outsiders, the
Taylor family understands the near-insanity and overwhelming passion of the community. Yet, they too are ruled by it, for a single loss could mean the termination of Eric’s
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Benjamin P. Phillips
contract and an end to their stable life in Dillon. The show’s director Peter Berg reveals
in an interview with NBC his feelings on the coaching profession:
These coaches have 2-year contracts. If they lose, they are fired. If they are fired, they
pick up and they are moving. You are a head coach in Austin one week; the next
week, you are moving your family to Oklahoma, and you are the assistant defensive
coordinator. The pressure on these coaches to win is every bit as intense as you will
find in college.
While Coach Taylor and his family joke about and criticize football, they understand
the importance placed on winning the games.
At the annual team introductions in a car sales lot owned by a former state champion,
the entire town shows up to support “their” Panthers. Dozens of former Panthers raucously cheer for this new year’s squad and hoist their state championship rings in the air
in support. Tellingly, in a small town with a failing economy, these former Panthers
remain local to their community. They sought eternal glory on the gridiron, but such
glory, save for a select few, has waned off the field. They have remained in Dillon and
shifted from players to followers. Panther football is their hope of escape from their failing economy and shattered dreams. In the journalistic account, Friday Night Lights, one
informant tells Bissinger:
Athletics lasts for such a short period of time. It ends for people. But while it lasts,
it creates this make-believe world where normal rules do not apply. We build this
fake atmosphere. When it is over and the harsh reality sets in, that is the real joke
we play on people. . . . Everybody wants to experience that superlative moment, and
being an athlete can give you that. It is Camelot for them. But there is even life after
it (xvi).
Many Dillon residents ignore or forget this cruel lesson, allowing themselves to be
caught up in the lore and excitement of Panther football all over again. It is their cultural capital and medium for exchange and comraderie (Koppett 177). Their continuing
commitment to their team unites them in common cause and in the pursuit of larger,
state-wide recognition for Dillon as a place of winners.
Famed sportswriter Leonard Koppett muses that “the commitment is to an illusion—
an illusion so strong and so long ingrained that, beyond a certain point, the attachment
is no longer entirely voluntary” (13). Panther football becomes a trusted and treasured
myth for Dillon. Religious scholar Joe Price argues, “a myth does not have to be articulated, understood, or even recognized in order to manifest power and exert dominance in
the shaping of an identity” (79). Panther football becomes Dillon. The two are inseparable. Victory on the gridiron and fan enthusiasm for the Panthers become naturalized, a
“statement of fact” (Barthes 31). Winning State becomes the unquestioned goal of the
coach, the players, and the community. Questioning the importance of football in Dillon
or wondering why the town virtually shuts down on game days to follow the fortunes of
teenagers is seen as unnatural. Likewise, for the viewers, the myth of sports as morally
rewarding is deeply naturalized within American society, as is the defense that sports are
escape when the morality myth fails.
The show introduces the audience to some of the players on the Dillon football team.
The camera takes the viewer to Matt Saracen’s house. Saracen is a sophomore and the
backup quarterback. He lives in a very modest house in a working-class neighborhood.
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While each player on the team gets a sign placed in their yard, Saracen’s sign is much
smaller and leans to the side. Saracen lives with his grandmother, who has dementia,
and acts as her caretaker. While his grandmother dozes in the living room, he prepares
both of their meals for the day, does the dishes, and gets her medicine ready before he
heads off for school. Similarly, Tim Riggins, the starting fullback, also comes from a
non-traditional home. Riggins lives with his brother and is first shown passed out on a
leather couch, shirtless, with six empty beer bottles beside him. Saracen spends much of
his time paying bills, taking care of his grandmother, and studying, whereas Riggins
lives what his brother deems a movie-star life. As a teenage high school student, he
spends his nights drinking and his days goofing off. While Saracen struggles to gain any
respect on the team, Riggins relies on his talent to get by.
With this comparison, the show challenges the moral myth that hard work, sacrifice,
and high character in sports are rewarded. Saracen’s hard work is rarely rewarded in the
long term. He faces constant criticism for not being good enough, even though he is
only a sophomore, and the audience sees him practicing and studying the playbook,
indications of a good work ethic. Meanwhile, Riggins’ incorrigible and self-indulgent
attitude never seems to lead to irreversible repercussions.1 His sins are forgiven due to
his athletic prowess on the football field. Hard work and determination make a nice
story, but if they do not result in domination on the football field, they get pushed to
the wayside. Winning is everything. If success comes through hard work, it is a nice
side effect. Yet, failure in everyday life is stereotypically assumed to result from laziness
and an unwillingness to work hard. Football, rather than justifying the belief in hard
work and sacrifice, at least in the case of Tim Riggins, demonstrates the seeming unfairness of life and the role situations beyond our control (natural ability, politics, luck)
play.
As creator Berg observes, “Coaches care very much about their kids and their welfare,
and they want to instill values,” but they are hired and fired over wins not instilling
morals and a notion of fair play (Interview by NBC). The seemingly incompatible
notions of fair play and playing for love of the game—ideals imported from the amateurism of British public schools—and the American preoccupation with winning at all
costs have been strange bedfellows from the start. As sports scholar Gerald R. Gems
describes about late-eighteenth century amateur sports, “Americans adhered only to the
letter of the law rather than the spirit, often circumventing both in their zeal for victory” (20). The British model celebrated the ideas of fair play and sportsmanship for the
sake of character building and the improvement of both the mind and body—ideas that
are not without their own ideological pitfalls and problems, especially in regard with
class and race. For instance, part of the reason amateurism came about in the first place
was to exclude members of the working class from interaction with higher classes. In
the American model, morality and manliness were proven through victory because “only
through victory, it was thought, could one demonstrate character and moral superiority
over one’s opponents” (Rees and Miracle 279). Winning demonstrated the perceived
rightness of one’s morals and tactics. A winning coach or player was a genius and a role
model. A losing one, using the same tactics, was open to scrutiny, but this inconsistency
went unchallenged. Players like Saracen do what they are told, work hard, and ride the
bench, hardly an example of sports’ rewarding of morality.
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Benjamin P. Phillips
For every Rudy, there are thousands of Tim Riggins. While Riggins arguably doesn’t
deserve to play, Coach Taylor needs Riggins in order for his offense to work. He needs
him to win on Friday nights, and he needs him to keep his coaching job. Starting spots
in sports do not go to the hardest worker; they usually go to the most talented.2 Yet,
recognition for on-the-field exploits does not translate into life outside of football. While
Riggins is a god on the gridiron for his hard-hitting blocks, the community views him
as a lowlife off the field. The town uses him for his talent and showers him with praise
on Friday nights, but they berate and write him off in the everyday world. Again, football does not punish his moral failures.
Jason Street seems like the ideal, All-American quarterback. He comes from a loving,
middle-class family, plays QB1 for the Dillon Panthers, dates the head cheerleader,
dresses in fashionable clothing, drives a nice vehicle, and possesses one of the best throwing arms in the nation. He is extremely polite, respectful, and religious. The idealized
American Dream teaches us that these are the people who succeed through hard work
and determination. Jason even has a potential scholarship to Notre Dame, a team historically described as “America’s Team.” The Dream seems to be working. Or, one could
assume that Street also had a few privileges given to him and denied to Saracen that
have led him to this point: a loving, stable family, parents with a steady source of
income, a large house, a car of his own, the help of a quarterback coach throughout his
developing years, and a support system to help him feel good about himself and grow
confidence. Coach Taylor reveals to a camera crew that he feels blessed to spend his “first
year with a young man who’s got the talent and moral strength” of Jason Street. A scout
describes him as the best prospect he has seen in 27 years. The mayor fears that he is
too polite. If the audience needed a better hero for whom to cheer and to invest in as an
escape from everyday life and a satisfying affirmation of the American Dream, they
would be hard pressed to find one.
In contrast, running back Brian “Smash” Williams literally comes from the other side
of the railroad tracks. His single mother works long hours at the hospital to support
Williams and his sisters. While he later turns out to be a multidimensional character,
the pilot portrays him as an extremely self-confident, black runningback. When asked
how good the Panthers are, Street answers: “We’re a very good team.” Williams says
that they are the best team because they have Williams. Williams speaks of himself in
the third person and demonstrates the “cool pose” often expressed by black athletes. He
talks smack, wears a giant cross around his neck, listens to hip-hop, and freestyle raps.
However, while showcasing the culture of the black cool pose (Trujillo 300), Berg makes
sure to highlight Williams’ hard work in practice and his serious attitude toward football and teamwork. Smash works diligently to improve his own game and challenges his
teammates to do the same. While he practices hard, he does not share Street’s reserved
attitude toward self-promotion and humility. He plans to win the state championship,
play for the University of Texas, win the National Championship, win the Heisman,
and unite the world through his endorsements. In comparison, when asked by a child if
Street would play in the NFL, the humble quarterback answers that he is going to think
about it, but school comes first. Then he leads them all in prayer. Williams challenges
the naturalized (and historically racialized) idea of playing the game the “right way.”
Just like Street, Williams works hard, motivates his teammates, and cares about winning
games—and he does these things without the privileges given to Street. But, Street is
Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can Lose
999
the role model and the examplar of sportsmanship, and Williams’ self-promotion and
playful style are often frowned upon in football.
Interestingly, it is the white fullback who does not take practice seriously and slides
by on his talent, challenging the long-standing and essentialist stereotypes of sports.
Sports scholars Roberts and Olson discuss the problematic belief that the white athlete
relies on determination and hard work, whereas the black athlete depends on his natural
talent, stating that throughout much of the twentieth century and, sadly, even today,
some view black athletes as “hopelessly different, instinctive rather than thoughtful,
physical rather than intellectual, complicit rather than ambitious” (27). Riggins’ lack of
interest in hard work and discipline helps to reveal the ridiculousness of stereotypes that
generalize entire groups of people based on perceived natural arguments. Berg insinuates
that culture and environment play the largest roles in attitude and success and attempts
to create multifaceted and flawed characters. While both Williams and Street are hard
workers, Riggins relies on talent alone. If the writers are attempting to create a character
who the audience would want to see fail, it would most likely be Tim Riggins.
However, neither the slacker fullback nor the self-confident runningback see their
lives take a dramatic turn. Instead, the All-American hero, Jason Street, falls from his
pillar. The humble, mild-mannered leader with the brightest future ahead of him finds
himself lying motionless on the field after a fumble-causing tackle to save a touchdown.
The rewarding of morality and the American Dream are not reaffirmed by football in
Friday Night Lights. In Bissinger’s original expose of high school football in Odessa, the
player who received a career ending injury was a cocky, African-American fullback
named Boobie Miles. Few mourned his loss outside of the impact it would have on their
team’s season. Another black fullback quickly took his place, and the football world
went on without him.
In choosing Jason Street as the player who is seriously injured, Berg shows that life is
not fair, and privilege does not preclude disaster. But in doing so, Berg exposes the
unfairness of sports as well and disrupts the viewer from his/her moral myth or fictionalized escape. Berg demonstrates the false premise often shown in sports films and shows
(and believed in life): doing things the right way will be rewarded with victory on the
field and in life. Had Berg chosen to have Williams be the injured player, some viewers
would write it off as pride coming before a fall. More cynically, others would not grieve
too hard for a black character as was the case in the real-life novel. If Riggins is injured,
some will view it as perhaps poetic justice for his attitude and individualism. But, by
having Street fall, Berg reverses the narrative expectations of the audience. While
the game goes on at the stadium, we see surgeons cut Street out of his uniform in an
operating room. While fans cheer, we see doctors cut open Street’s back. While
thousands celebrate a thrilling victory, we see Street’s white, middle-class, supportive
parents mourn. Many at home are left to imagine themselves, a friend, or their own
child lying on that stretcher. It disrupts the myths of sports and confronts the viewer
with the reality that sports can have real and lasting consquences, a discourse currently
permeating sports discussions over the problem of concussions.
Street’s injury gives Saracen the chance to gain the recognition his hard work should
deserve, but few would argue that he earns that chance through his talent. When young
athletes dream of their opportunity for football glory, it rarely includes that path opening due to a paralyzed starter. His hard work and good character do not pay off. In the
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Benjamin P. Phillips
end, a freak injury puts Saracen into the spotlight, although he leads them to an
improbable victory. While it is hard to blame the Panthers’ supporters for getting
caught up in the moment, it reminds the audience that life goes on while it seems to
end for others. As the stadium announcer explains, “The amazing thing is, we’ve got the
number one football player in America carted off on a stretcher, but this game has to go
on.” There is no possible consideration that the game is irrelevant now. Robert J. Higgs
captures this sentiment when he writes about Americans’ preoccupation with winning:
“There is little room for traditionally feminine virtues like humility, limitation or moderation, and almost no room for pity or tenderness” (5). Although he is speaking about
American feelings toward the opposition, his words hold true for the fans’ feelings about
Street.
Berg further complicates the myths of sports in the interactions between the players.
When asked by a television crew if he has experienced any incidents of racism, Williams
declines to discuss it, stating: “I don’t let that phase me. I just keep my blinders on and
keep movin’ forward. I have things to do.” Williams represents the problematic situation in which many black, male athletes find themselves. Due to the financial limitations
of his household and the area from which he comes, college is not a guarantee. But in a
state obsessed with football, his best chance at an education might come from an athletic
scholarship (Roberts and Olson 53). Yet, such a tactic is a dangerous one for young
black students, as making it to the pros is highly improbable and scholarships are
dependent on an athlete’s continued success and good health. Likewise, time spent training for football is time spent not concentrating on school work.
Indifferent to education and caught up in drinking, Riggins personifies the stereotype
of the white, southern male. He drives a truck, possesses a quick temper, and longs to
live out his days in his failing small town, caring little for the world outside of Texas.
However, Berg continually attempts to challenge the audience to examine his characters
as people, rather than one-dimensional types. Berg’s show reveals that life is rarely black
and white, but complicated shades of gray. While Riggins certainly conjures up pejorative thoughts for a large portion of the audience, Berg goes to great lengths to give him
likable qualities as well. Even with his rebel status and character flaws, he is still best
friends with one of the most likable characters on the show. When Street gets injured,
Riggins blames himself for not protecting him. At the hospital he and Williams put
their differences aside and embrace. While Riggins’ home situation is not an excuse for
his actions and attitude, the show makes sure to show the audience that he and his
brother are raising themselves without parents. Riggins is not presented as a villain
without redeeming qualities, but as a young man who is the sum of his experiences,
environment, and choices. By creating characters who do not fit into distinct categories,
the writers allow the viewers to think beyond stereotypes and snap judgments and complicate the myth of morality in sports.
As high school football remains one of the only constants in an ever-changing and
deteriorating small town, a loss in football is a personal loss for everyone. Football allows
them, if only briefly, to forget about their everyday troubles. Often, people turn to
sports as an antidote for the anxieties of the modern world, regardless of the actuality of
sports’ healing powers, a tenuous sentiment echoed over and over (recently with the celebration of the New Orleans Saints in the Super Bowl in 2010 or the Michigan State
Spartans [standing in for Detroit] in the NCAA Championship basketball game in
Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can Lose
1001
2009). Because Dillon High School has had a long history of raising money for football
instead of for academics, an importance on education is not stressed, and many graduates
do not go on to earn college degrees. The lack of industry and technology companies in
Dillon does not allow for an influx of new residents, and the town perpetuates itself from
within. This stagnation also leads to a community well-versed in the tradition and history of Panther football. Many want to recapture the glory days, like Billy Riggins, who
cringes while he watches his brother squander what, in his opinion, is the best time of
his life. Buddy Garrity, a former state champion, lives and breathes Panther football to
the point that he holds rallies for the team and donates thousands of dollars to the program. Unstereotypically, male fans are not alone in their obsession. The mayor, who
happens to be female, gives out her share of advice to Jason Street. Meanwhile, many of
the players’ mothers attempt to get Tami Taylor to join their book club and other booster groups to be more connected to the football team. In Dillon, and in many small
towns, football obsession can cross the boundaries of gender. Still, traditional gender
roles remain firmly in place in this small-town. Females are expected to cheer for their
male counterparts, bake them food, and remain in the stands or sidelines during the
actual games.
Dillon Panther football becomes an event for everyone for their entire lives. Even
Landy Clark, Saracen’s best friend and critic of the importance placed on football, cheers
for the team on Friday nights. The adults and high school students are not the only ones
transfixed by Dillon Panther football. During the week before the game, the Dillon Panthers practice with a team of children. While the young boys live out future dreams,
young girls stand on the sidelines and cheer with the varsity cheerleading squad. Street
explains that the current Panthers once sat where the children now sit and learned the
same basic plays. When attempting to lead them in prayer, a young child asks Street if
God loves football. Street emphatically replies that he thinks “everyone loves football.”
In an interview with NBC, Berg describes just how amazed he was by how much pressure was placed on young athletes: “Athletics has reached such an epic proportion in our
culture in terms of how we define ourselves, how we organize ourselves. And it is not
even a small-town phenomenon—We are a sports driven culture.” Much of the popularity of sports likely stems from their ability to remind us of childhood. Koppett argues
that children are even more susceptible to the myths that we have about sports because
they are ill-equipped to think about the larger issues in society and rarely think beyond
the now (293).
As Coach Taylor speaks in the prayer circle at midfield after the dramatic victory,
the camera takes us to the hospital while Taylor’s words continue to narrate. His
speech reminds those assembled that everyone will fall at some point in their lives.
Taylor’s speech serves two purposes: on the surface, it can be taken as a warning that
football games will not always turn out as well as the Panthers wish; however, the
deeper meaning speaks to the players beyond the game and to the audience, perhaps
warning that sports can be unfair and are not an escape. Coach Taylor says that “it is
these times; it is this pain that allows us to look inside of ourselves.” For the community of Dillon, the players might be interchangeable and replaceable cogs in the long
line of Dillon Panthers, but each Panther is an individual with more to offer to the
world.
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Benjamin P. Phillips
But, as inspirational as Coach Taylor’s words are, Dillon does not really change. On
the individual level, people may change, but they still stay devoted to Panther football
and the town remains the same. While the names, faces, and records change, Panther
football returns every autumn and younger generations replace the older ones. Jobs leave,
businesses fail, and individuals struggle, but football remains a constant for them. In
small towns across America, millions of Americans face rough times. The fictional town
of Dillon, Texas could stand in for any steel city of the Northeast, farming village of the
Midwest, technology center in the West, or oiltown in the South. For many of these
towns, football/basketball/hockey/etc. stands for hope, stability, and glory days past.
They search for an outlet which offers permanence and reassurance. But sports are neither morally fair nor disconnected from everyday life, regardless of myths to the contrary. More often than not, sports are only considered an escape or political when they
challenge the status quo rather than reinforce it or naturalize it. And this was a major
problem for the show. As advertised, many viewers likely thought the show was mostly
going to celebrate the naturalized myths of football and passed it by. Or, maybe those
who enjoyed football longed for a show that celebrated it. FNL attempted to strip football of its myths (though it also indulged in myths of its own at times—the moral
authority and celebration of the coach, for example) and display it as the multi-faceted
part of life that it was, where victory does not always come to those who deserve it and
a game that can have far-reaching consequences beyond the gridiron. Critic Havrilesky
accurately notes, “Despite Coach Taylor’s inspiring talk of victory for those who fight
together, Friday Night Lights is essentially a show about losing” (“How Football Players
Got Trounced by ‘Glee’”). She argues that, aside from The Wire, “no show on television
has painted quite so vivid a picture of the agony of defeat.” And if viewers expect to
watch sports as a moral affirmation or an escape—especially fictionalized sports—why
would they tune in to watch the heroes lose or see good people fail? As Peter Berg
divulged as to why his show was not more popular, “Friday Night Lights, for a variety of
reasons, is not always a lot of fun, and it’s certainly not an escape” (“Conversation”).
Quite certainly, the show—and football itself—isn’t “just football,” as much as we may
wish that it were.
Notes
1. One of the only times he faces lasting consequences comes seasons later when he selflessly takes the fall and
goes to prison for his brother so that his brother’s life would not be ruined or the lives of his sister-in-law
and nephew; it comes from a noble sacrifice, not a moral flaw or a poor work ethic.
2. This is not to say that the most talented do not also work hard; but the two are not always interconnected.
Works Cited
Barthes, Roland. “Myth Today” from Mythologies (1957). Cultural Theory and
Popular Culture: A Reader – 3rd Edition. Ed. John Storey. London: Pearson,
2006. 293–302. Print.
Berg, Peter. “Conversation: Peter Berg, Creator and Executive Producer of ‘Friday Night Lights.’”Interview by Jeffrey Brown. Newshour. PBS, 30 Apr.
2010. Web. 6 Nov. 2011.
Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can Lose
1003
——. “Peter Berg, ‘Nights’ Manager.” Interview by Dave Davies. Fresh Air. PBS,
11 Apr. 2007. Web. 5 Nov. 2011.
——. Interview by NBC. Friday Night Lights. NBC, 2007. Web. 5 Nov. 2011.
——. “Peter Berg on Friday Night Lights.” Interview by Fred Topel. Television
Blend, Cinema Blend, 1 Oct. 2006. Web. 6 Nov. 2011.
Bissinger, H.G. Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream. Cambridge,
MA: Da Capo Press, 1990. Print.
Blum, Laura. NBC Pushes Friday Night Lights on Web. Media Week, 30 Aug.
2006. Web. 11 June 2014.
“NBC, Toyota Pair to Draw Teens to Friday Night Lights. Chief Marketer. 22
Sept. 2006. Web. 11 June 2014.
“‘101 Best Written TV Series of All Time’ From WGA/TV Guide: Complete
List.” Deadline. 2 June 2013. Web. 11 June 2014.
Gems, Gerald R. For Pride, Profit, and Patriarchy: Football and the Incorporation of
American Cultural Values. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2000. Print.
Gorn, Elliot J., and Warren Goldstein. A Brief History of American Sports. New
York: Hill and Wang, 1993. Print.
Havrilesky, Heather. “Bright lights, big pity.” Salon. 7 Mar. 2007. Web. 11
June 2014.
——. “How Football Players Got Trounced by ‘Glee.’” New York Times. 3 June
2011. Web. 11 June 2014.
Heffernon, Virginia. “On the Field and Off, Losing Isn’t an Option.” New York
Times. 3 Oct. 2006. Web. 11 June 2014.
Higgs, Robert J. God in the Stadium: Sports & Religion in America. Lexington: UP
of Kentucky, 1995. Print.
Johns, Anna. “NBC to promote new show on Bebo.com.” AOL TV. 30 Aug.
2006. Web. 11 June 2014.
Koppett, Leonard. Sports Illusion, Sports Reality: A Reporter’s View of Sports, Journalism, and Society. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981. Print.
McDowell, Jean. “Can This TV Show Be Saved?” Time. 11 Jan. 2007. Web. 11
June 2014.
Plemons, Jesse. “Jesse Plemons of ‘Friday Night Lights.’”Interview by Marureen
Ryan. Chicago Tribune, 20 Mar. 2007. Web. 11 June. 2014.
Price, Joseph L. Rounding the Bases: Baseball and Religion in America. Macon: Mercer UP, 2006. Print.
Rees, C. Roger, and Andrew W. Miracle. “Sport in Education.” Handbook of
Sports Studies. Ed. J. Coakley, E. Dunning. London: Sage, 2006. 277–90.
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Roberts, Randy, and James Olson. Winning is the Only Thing: Sports in America
Since 1945. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989. Print.
Sandomir, Richard. “Citing N.F.L., ESPN Cancels ‘Playmakers’.” New York
Times. 5 Feb. 2004. Web. 11 June 2014.
Simmons, Bill. “Genius in the ‘Shadow’.” ESPN Page 2, 8 Nov. 2005. Web. 11
June 2014.
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Trujillo, Nick. “Hegemonic Masculinity on the Mound: Media Representations
of Nolan Ryan and American Sports Culture.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 8 (1991): 290–308. Print.
Dr. Benjamin P. Phillips earned his PhD in American Studies from Michigan State
University. His work has previously been published in NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture. His research interests are in popular culture, US history, sports culture,
and sports history, specifically concerning issues of race, gender, class, myth, and individual agency.
Sociology of Sport
SOC 423 – Dr. Mwaniki
American Value System
Socialization into values, examples from the book…
How does the US continue, or extend, those values in sport of
the British?
Valorization of individualism
Narrow definition of success
Competition as a fundamental social process
‘Winner take all’ society
Yet it is a real question if competition brings out our ‘best’
American Value System
Socially valued way to achieve
Hard work, striving, deferred gratification
Protestant work ethic (Max Weber) and Social Darwinism
“Progress” overcomes the status quo
Materialism and consumption
Social conformity (sub-cultures)
American Values and Sport
How does sport fit into our value system?
Both for ‘good’ and ‘bad’
Individualism
Competition
Achievement (hard work/striving/deferred gratification)
‘Progress’ overcoming the status quo
Materialism
Social conformity
In groups…
Find three recent examples of the contradiction of
sport and American values
Write:
Summarize the three articles together.
How do they demonstrate “American values” in
sport?
Dyreson – Sport and Civic Engagement
Questioning common sense ideas of sport…
Does sport build (national) community?
How does sport play to our national myths?
How does sport differ from other cultural institutions?
Barthes – Wrestling Mythologies
What does it mean to call wrestling a “spectacle”?
Though he doesn’t consider wrestling a “sport,” how can we see different
elements of wrestling in our mainstream sports?
What does Barthes say about the role of justice and the morality of
wrestling?
What is the appeal of wrestling?
Phillips – Clear eyes, full hearts, can lose
Why do sport shows that go for realism tend to get poor ratings?
How does Friday Night Lights end up protecting sport and its myths?
What are some of the myths, or some examples, that Phillips
discusses?
Ultimately what does the “institution” of Panther football do for the town
of Dillon?

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