Published summer 2008 for Blitz Magazine.
Twenty years ago, Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger shed the shackles of suburban Philadelphia, uprooted his family and moved to Odessa, Texas, the dream of spinning a spectacular narrative about the power of sports in our culture burning bright in his mind. He had envisioned a football story in the Hoosiers vein, about a team serving as a rallying point for a tight-knit community, and made the commitment to immerse himself in Permian High School for a full year.
What he uncovered was a culture virtually obsessed not only with football, but with winning, and – to an extent – living vicariously through the young athletes that took to the field in Panther black and white. The town was divided by the same colors, which became evident when the team’s star running back Boobie Miles, who was black, was injured and immediately met the scorn of a community that now deemed him worthless.
When Friday Night Lights was published two years later, it wound up as a less-than-flattering look at America’s overemphasis on sport through the complex and heartbreaking prism of Odessa. Bissinger then faced the wrath of the same community that had turned on Boobie, and the book was dismissed by the Permian faithful as a slam job. The rest of the country, however, couldn’t get enough of Bissinger’s critically-acclaimed work, and it became a runaway bestseller. Friday Night Lights is still in print today, and has sold nearly two million copies, spawning a major motion picture of the same name in 2004, and a drama series currently running on NBC.
The movie, directed by Bissinger’s cousin Peter Berg, focused less on the racial divisions of Odessa and more on the athletes’ ability to rise above the astounding pressure the community placed on them. The TV series, meanwhile, has made an even more drastic departure from Bissinger’s original heartrending tale.
In a recent interview with Blitz Magazine, Bissinger reflected on Permian’s 1988 season, the backlash he faced in Odessa, his complicated relationship with Boobie, and how the cottage industry that has been constructed around Friday Night Lights creeps further and further away from his central themes.
He also reiterated an apology for his tirade on HBO’s Costas Now in April 2008, in which he derided sports blogging as immature and a depressing look at the future of writing. (He regrets all the profanity, but not his message.) He also talks about the cautionary message of Friday Night Lights, and how the heart of the book, and what he sees as one of America’s biggest problems, has been almost entirely ignored. In the end, Bissinger says, the future generations of the country will be made to pay the price for our misplaced priorities.
BLITZ: In the intro to Friday Night Lights, you explain the desire to get out there and find a team that meant everything to its town and said that it might have been the acute awareness of being thirty-something, or maybe the fact that you were living in suburban Philly where all the houses look the same. So you put out a few ideas there – now, 20 years later, can you put your finger on any singular thing that made you go or one reason that was more powerful than the others?
Bissinger: I think there’s a point that comes when you’re in your mid-thirties. I had had a good career in journalism. I had won a Pulitzer Prize. I was working at a wonderful newspaper, but you reach a point where you’re either going to take a risk and do something completely different and try to fulfill a dream or you’re going to kind of continue on the same track – which can be a good track, but a very safe track. I had had this idea for a book for about a year. I had always dreamed of writing a book and I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. And so once I found the town of Odessa and they gave me permission to be there, I just sort of said, ‘Let’s do this. Now is the time to do it.’ Because I knew if I continued at the Inquirer, I would just stay there. I was on the editing track. So the goal would’ve been to become editor of the paper. Whether or not I would’ve reached it, I don’t know. So it was kind of almost a do-or-die situation. Either I was going to do it then or never do it. I felt like my kids then, were five, were young enough that they could easily handle it and really see it as an adventure. The same for me: It was an adventure, and I’m a great believer in getting out of the routine of your life.
BLITZ: Right. Were you tempted to go to other towns? What other ones were out there?
Bissinger: I thought a little bit about Western Pennsylvania. Quarterback Valley was famous because of Joe Namath and Joe Montana and Tony Dorsett – who of course isn’t a quarterback … Aliquippa – towns like that. But I spoke to a recruiter from Penn State who said that it just didn’t have the same intensity that it once had. I thought a little bit about Massillon, Ohio, where they still put a little plastic football in the crib of every boy who is born in the hopes that he’ll grow up to be a great high school football player. But I just realized if you’re going to do a book like this, you have to do it in Texas, because Texas is just synonymous with high school football.
BLITZ: The book winds up being a very unflattering look at Odessa. At any point in your time down there, did it give you pause? Did you start to realize, ‘Okay, this really isn’t a story like Hoosiers anymore, and these people think it is.’ Did you ever feel like you were preying on their naiveté?
Bissinger: No. I didn’t feel that. You know, I presented my credentials, they knew who I was. They knew I had won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. They knew that I worked for a good newspaper. This was a very media-savvy team because at that point they were the winningest team in Texas State history. They had a ton of media all over the state. A book had been written about them previously – it was really a history of the team – so they weren’t that naïve. They could’ve said, ‘No.’ There was no question that I thought this would be a Hoosiers-type story, but the minute within the book when the black running back Boobie Miles got hurt, the whole dimension of the book changed. And I was there as reporter. I’m not there as a moralist. So I kept quiet, I kept my head down, and did the reporting I felt I had to do to tell a fair and accurate story.
And I don’t think it’d necessarily an unflattering portrait. I think it’s an honest portrait. I think love comes through for the independent people of Odessa. Love comes through, certainly for the kids that play on the football team. But I wasn’t going to shy away from the issues of racism and misplaced academic priorities and things like that because it would’ve been a complete dereliction of my duty as a journalist. Did I let on what I was coming up with? Absolutely not. Any journalist who would let on to that would be crazy, because people would no longer act themselves, and that’s why I was down there for a year.
BLITZ: Were you expecting then the backlash from the town?
Bissinger: Well, I wasn’t expecting the intensity where I would get threats of real bodily harm at book stores and would have to cancel book signings. … I was supposed to go back down to Odessa when the book came out to do a series of book signings at book stores. I called my publisher and they said, ‘We’re cancelling book signings. We’ve had a lot of calls from people who say we’re just going to beat the crap out of this guy.’ And I took those threats seriously, because commensurate with the book coming out, Permian had just been banned from the playoffs. They had been turned in by the rival high school in town [for holding early supervised practices in violation of rules] so the place was going crazy. And a lot of blame was directed at the book. But I wasn’t stupid. I knew that people who liked me, and I liked, would be very upset by the book. That certainly turned out to be the case with the head coach. It was not the case with the kids, who I made contact with and all of them defended the book as being true and accurate.
BLITZ: Is it hurtful at all to pour all your efforts into something like that and have it rejected by so many people that it was written about?
Bissinger: Well, it’s an interesting question. It’s hurtful in the sense that it’s inevitable when you do this kind of immersion journalism you’re going to establish relationships with people. You’re going to like people and they’re going to like you. So it was hurtful when the head coach, Gary Gaines, just completely rejected me out of hand. Now I did go back 14 years later and make amends with him on my own. I went and visited him when he was then coaching at Abilene Christian [University]. … I just showed up unannounced at his office. He saw me pass by his window and he looked like he had just seen a ghost. But I wanted to say to him, ‘Look Gary, I don’t take back a word of what I said, but there was no intent to hurt you and I tried very hard to portray you in a very positive light, which I think I did.’ And we had a very private, hour-long conversation that did not have a lot to do with the book – although he’s never read the book. He’s condemned it, but he’s never read it. He did tell me that, but it was a very wonderful conversation about our kids, our lives and our families. So it was of great meaning to me. And it also proved to me that, if I thought that book was a real slam job, I never, ever would have made that trip to Abilene.
In 2004, Sports Illustrated asked me to go down to Odessa to sort of go back and revisit. Now, I had been there before, but this is the first time I was down there publicly. I went back to all the people that had yelled and screamed the loudest – not all, but some of them – just to look them in the eye and say, ‘Look, I didn’t mean to harm you, but I don’t take back a word of what I said.’ That was important to me as a journalist and a man.
BLITZ: In that piece for SI, you mentioned that Boobie Miles – you guys had kept in touch through the years and that you had even sent him money a few times. Do you still keep in touch with him?
Bissinger: Yeah, I do. I just saw him about a month ago. We did a speaking engagement together in Mansfield, Texas, which is a suburb of Fort Worth. I talk to Boobie a lot. I love Boobie. His life has been a train wreck. It’s been very up and down. Obviously, I didn’t give him a dime during the book, but after the book came out, I felt a sense of responsibility to Boobie, particularly when his uncle died. He really had no father figure in his life. Not that I necessarily am, but he’s fallen on some very hard times from time-to-time. I just feel an obligation as a human being to try to get him through those times as well as try to get him to understand that he’s not a kid anymore, and he’s not a celebrity – although he’s bizarrely treated as one in Odessa. He needs to work, and get a career and take care of his family. … I had seen what he had been through. I had never seen a kid treated that way in my life and I hope I never will. The way he was treated by the school was horrifying, just absolutely horrifying. Like he was a nobody. More than a nobody – it was like he had done something horrible, terrible and all he had done was hurt his knee, which wasn’t his fault. But they turned on him with racism, and cruelty, and acted as if he no longer existed.
BLITZ: Was it at that point, then, that your relationship with him evolved into something that much closer?
Bissinger: It began to evolve. It really evolved [when] I went back to Odessa a few years later and I saw Boobie and I could really tell that he was floundering and I was always very, very close to L.V. (Boobie’s uncle). He’s one of the kindest and loveliest men I’ve ever met. And I sort of instinctively knew that when L.V. died, Boobie was going to be a lost soul. He didn’t have someone to help him in his life. It’s difficult when you’re living about 2,000 miles away – there’s only so much I can do, and ultimately, the responsibility is up to Boobie. He’s a man of great heart. He’s great with kids. When we did these speaking engagements, they flocked to him. He’s very honest about his story, about the real need to get an education. He’s a wonderful guy in many respects, but he’s got to learn also to assume responsibility for himself. … I do love him.
(And I’m about to see Brian Chavez next month at the College World Series. Brian Chavez and his Dad – those are the two that I’m really closest to.)
BLITZ: So with all the other players, there’s really no ill will about anything in the book?
Bissinger: Not that I’ve heard. There may be a nitpick here and there. When the book came out, I think [Mike] Winchell may have been upset by some of the indications of racism, but no, when the book came out, the kids defended it to a T, to my best recollection, that this book, this is the way it really happened. This is the way it really is. And that got me through the hard times of an entire town that was now routinely condemning me. Their support of the book meant a tremendous amount to me – that I wasn’t taking cheap shots and I wasn’t sensationalizing. And I can tell you this, after thinking about the book for 20 years, there isn’t a single cheap shot in that book.
BLITZ: So there really is no better defense if so many of the main characters say you’re telling it like it is.
Bissinger: Right. And then when I went back in 2004, people who had condemned the book – a lot of public officials, school board officials and school administrators – said, ‘Look, we hated the book when it came out, we hated you, but it was accurate. It was a look in the mirror that we really needed to take to see the way we really were. … This book actually did us a lot of good.’ … I give Odessa lot of credit for making some changes. In the meantime, their football program went to hell. It was much better last year – and that will be the real test – if Mojo comes back to anywhere close to the degree that it was when I was there, will they revert back to kind of the insanity that was there once before? But I’ve also learned that what happens in Odessa now routinely happens in hundreds of places across the country. If anything, the emphasis on high school sports has gotten much worse. So Friday Night Lights was a cautionary tale, people love talking about it as a cautionary tale, coaches love talking about it as a cautionary tale, and so do educators, but they don’t seem to do anything about it.
BLITZ: Does immersion journalism sort of demand that you erase some of these boundaries that would typically exist between a reporter and a subject? Did you go down there with your guard down so that you could get closer to these people?
Bissinger: Yeah. You go down because you want to see it first-hand. You don’t want to rely on reconstructions and you want people to trust you. I’m a journalist. I want people to open up, and the only way they’re going to do that is by your being there every day. It’s easy for someone to lie for a day. If they’re really good, maybe they can lie for a week. But beyond a week, it’s really hard to lie, and if you’re a smart reporter, you just sort of lay in the shadows as much as you can. That doesn’t mean that I’m hiding behind some bush taking notes. You just conduct your business quietly. And that’s why I wanted to be there, because I wanted to soak up as much of the team and the town as I possibly could, so that when I wrote the book, I felt I was writing with real authority as opposed to guessing or just taking some sensationalist shot as many reporters do.
BLITZ: You’ve written about so many sports, what is your favorite to cover? Is it football?
Bissinger: No. My favorite sport is actually baseball. I don’t watch football that much anymore. The thing about Friday Night Lights that made it interesting – that it was both wonderful and spectacular and an incredible spectacle when it came to those football games – and then it also had a very, very dark side to it. And that makes for great drama, and when you have great drama, you have the opportunity of writing a book that will resonate with people. You know, the games were fun to write because I sort of treated them almost like war. They weren’t just football games, they were sort of these gladiatorial spectacles that were beautiful and exciting and visceral, and a little bit nuts and a little bit crazy. They were the most exciting sporting events that I’ve ever seen.
BLITZ: And what is it about football that makes it so different than other sports – especially when you’re writing about it? Is it just that there’s so much more riding on the outcome of each game?
Bissinger: Well, I think it’s particularly different at the high school level, because especially once you got to know them, I realized these are not kids that are playing for big Division I scholarships. The year that I wrote about, there was one kid that got a Division I scholarship – Ivory Christian. These were kids who were really playing for the pride and honor of their team and of their town. That made their sense of sacrifice all the more poignant, all the more beautiful and all the more devastating in a way. That’s what I think is cool about high school sports, so I think it’s a shame that it seems to be becoming increasingly professionalized. That’s what made those games so fantastic. Pro athletes – I don’t know what pro athletes are playing for. Sometimes they’re playing for their team. Sometimes they’re playing for their salaries. Sometimes they’re playing for who the hell knows what? As we know in professional sports, there’s not much team loyalty. There certainly is very little town loyalty. In high school sports in Odessa, Texas, at that time, that’s all it was about. … They really are carrying the hopes and dreams of the town on their shoulders. They really, really are. That’s not made up. That’s not the entire town – Odessa’s not a small town in terms of population – it’s 100,000. But it’s so isolated, it has the feel of a small town. And people had come to depend on the success of Permian High School to feel good about themselves. That’s really true of sports. We do that all the time. We do it on the professional level. We do it on the college level. We do it on the high school level. And these kids had such an incredible tradition to uphold – I think the worst season in the past 25 years when I got there had been 7-2 – they were expected, obviously, to get in the playoffs. If they got into the semifinals, that was considered a good year, not a great year. If they got into the state championship, that was considered a very good year, but still, it was really considered every year that they should win. And that’s a lot of pressure.
BLITZ: The NFL was not the biggest sport league in America when you wrote the book. Now, it certainly is. What factors do you think contributed to its rise?
Bissinger: I just think the NFL has done a remarkably good job of marketing itself [using] television to sort of emphasize – in a tacit and subtle, but effective way – the inherent violence of the game. Then you have all the cheerleaders who look like they’re from the pages of Penthouse. You know, they’re just very effective at marketing themselves. And America’s a pretty violent country and America revels in violence. No western country has as many killings as we do, as many murders. We have no gun control. And I think football plays into this sort of mythic sense that we have of ourselves as being independent, tough and strong – and vicious in a sense. Sort of our last vestiges of the Wild West – boys and men getting on a football field and hitting the living snot out of each other. Which is why I don’t really watch it much anymore, because I find it really unremittingly violent – and not particularly beautiful. You know, I love the Super Bowl, but I don’t watch it routinely.
I find the whole spectacle of it in college level to be the both fascinating and bizarre and the most wrong-headed thing I’ve ever seen in terms of what a university should be. There is so much energy poured into those football games that goes way beyond the number of people who fill the stands and way beyond the number of scholarships that are given. I don’t really understand it and I think there’s no western country in the world that gives out as many scholarships as we give in the United States, because we give them all to sports. And then we shake our heads and wonder why we’re sinking as a country. Well, it’s pretty obvious: our priorities are wrong, and I don’t think they’ll be righted because sports occupy such a tremendous part of our lives. Although, we get out of thinking that by reverting to this kind of Grantland Rice, rose-colored view that it’s all about teamwork and discipline and manhood and girlhood and a lot of stuff that it can be, but it no longer is. It’s only about winning. And behind winning, it’s also about greed.
BLITZ: The book is now a staple of sports-writing courses. Did you ever think that it would become so popular or be so well-received critically that future generations of sportswriters would be studying it?
Bissinger: All I knew was that I had a great story on my hands. I had been a journalist for 15 years, so I knew enough to know when you have a great story and when you don’t. And when you have a great story, you have the hope that it will be successful, and I had the hope that it would be successful. I had absolutely no idea that this book would still be in print today or that it sell close to two million copies or that the term “Friday Night Lights” which I invented, would become part of the vernacular. I had no idea about any of that that – that it would inspire a generation of sportswriters – or at least it did until I criticized their blogs. But I’ve heard stories – a guy from Brooklyn read the book and moved down to Texas and became a high school football coach – people making pilgrimages in their cars from Massachusetts just to see the stadium. The whole phenomenon of Friday Night Lights has been remarkable to me, flattering, bizarre, almost hard to believe. But I’ll take it.
BLITZ: I feel like the movie really got away from a central theme of the book which was that Odessa had this sickness – it was down on its luck, it was racist in a lot of ways, the town lived vicariously through the team – and football was a symptom of that sickness. The movie touched on some of that, but was really more about how the kids succeeded in the face of all that pressure. How do you feel about the decision to go in that direction? Certainly you had some say. (Friday Night Lights director Peter Berg is Bissinger’s cousin)
Bissinger: I understood that, and I actually did like the movie. I actually liked the movie for the reason that you cited. There’s no question that it focused on the kids and their ability to sort of rise above this monumental pressure that was being placed on their shoulders. I’m different from other authors; you know, authors bitch and moan when they sell something to Hollywood and then they don’t like how it turns out. My response to that is, ‘Then don’t sell the rights. Come on, you’re not an idiot. You’re taking the money for a reason and you’re really taking the money to shut up. And if you’re really worried about it, then don’t sell the rights.’ I had a little bit of an advantage in that the director was my cousin. So we talked a lot and he said, ‘Look, I’m not making a documentary. I’m making a Hollywood movie and there are certain themes that just don’t play well with audiences. And if I make a movie about racism, it’s just not going to sell. And I understood that. It was touched upon very, very lightly. But I felt he did get to one of the key hearts of the book, which was the monumental pressure being placed on these kids because football was at the center of life in this town, and the ability of these kids to rise above it. … There were changes that bothered me, particularly – they had Boobie coming back to the team at the end and that was obviously very different from the book. And they really terribly embellished the character of Tim McGraw, who was Don Billingsley’s father. Charlie had had his problems, but Charlie was not anywhere close to how he was portrayed and that bothered me greatly. I tried to call Charlie and he hung up on me, and he was right to do that. Not that I had anything to do with it, because I did not write the script. But I did admire the film. I thought it had a grittiness to it, and a texture to it that made it more than just your ordinary sports film.
BLITZ: And what do you think when you take into account where the TV series has gone with it, and we’re now even further away from what the book was all about?
Bissinger: I’m not a real watcher of the TV series. It may be that I’m Friday Night Light-ed out. And also, the TV series is really very, very vastly different from the book. It shares similar thematic material, but as you know, it’s set in the present day, it’s not set in Odessa, the characters are very, very different. What I’ve seen, I’ve enjoyed immensely. I think the acting is fantastic, and I think it’s really a quality show. I give NBC a lot of credit for trying to figure out a way to keep it on the air. I’m very, very proud of it, although I don’t routinely watch it.
BLITZ: The sports journalism that you read growing up – it hasn’t disappeared entirely – but certainly with the emergence of new media formats and blogs, that landscape is changing drastically. Where do you see the landscape going?
Bissinger: Well, I touched upon this on Costas, and I touched upon it in probably the most in-artful way you could touch upon it. I was too angry, which only subsumed the valid points I thought I was trying to make. The use of profanity directed at Will Leitch was just uncalled for and unnecessary, and embarrassing to him and to me. As you know, I’ve apologized for that publicly, and it’s an apology from the heart, as was my performance that night. I’m a man of passion and obviously – it’s not because I’m bitter, it’s not because I’m some old fart – it’s because I see writing going in a terrible direction. Because to me, it’s not really writing. A lot of these blogs – some of them are very good information-based blogs – but most of them are too long, most of them need editing. And in the blogs that seem to be the most successful, the writing is very glib, it’s very tongue-in-cheek, it’s very wink-and-a-nod, it’s very malicious. And I’m tired of hearing that I don’t know the difference between a post and a comment, because it’s the post that guides the comments. And I think many people read these blogs because they like to see the comments to see who can top who in terms of being the most sexist or the most racist or come up with the most ridiculous, sophomoric sexual joke. So I don’t think writing is headed in a good direction because I don’t think you can find much artful writing on blogs, outside of the mainstream blogs that exist. I’m not talking about someone like Joe Posnanski who writes a very, very good blog and is obviously a professional reporter with the Kansas City papers, or the guys who write for ESPN.
And I don’t know how many people read these blogs. Someone told me that the average readership of a blog in this country is one, and that there are 175,000 new blogs created daily, so I don’t know who reads them. I know Deadspin gets read, and it’s very, very popular. And Will Leitch seemed like a nice guy, but you’re never going to get me to say that I like Deadspin, because I don’t. I think it represents the kind of snarkiness and maliciousness and a kind of surface cruelty that I don’t like. I don’t think those types of blogs are ever going to produce an Arthur Daley or a Red Smith or a W.C. Heinz.
The danger of what’s happening now, and there’s a perfect example… You know, newspapers are fighting for their lives and don’t really know what to do. And what’s happening because of blogs, newspapers are now just printing rumor and innuendo simply because it’s on a blog. And last weekend, a blog called the Badger Blogger reported that Ned Yost was about to be fired as the manager of the Milwaukee Brewers. He cited sources close to him – no one knows who these sources are. The lead writer for the Milwaukee Brewers writes a blog, and yet, he reports this information on his blog. So now it’s running like wildfire that Ned Yost is about to get fired. Well, the question is, why would he even report that? But he’s doing it because this is the power of blogs: A rumor appears, maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not, and mainstream newspapers are picking it up and now you have a story where you don’t really have a story. Well, that’s not journalism, that’s bullshit. That’s carelessness.
BLITZ: Well, certainly, traditional newspapers have made that mistake. The Boston Herald just issued an apology on the front page (for failing to verify the Super Bowl XXXVI walk-through spying story).
Bissinger: There’s no question that mainstream journalism is not perfect. I’ve written a lot about that. If you look at my work in Vanity Fair, I wrote the story “Shattered Glass” which became the movie of the same name – it was about Stephen Glass, who made up most of the stories he wrote for the New Republic. I’ve written extensively about the possible use of fabrication in the book Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs, so I’m not naïve to the mistakes that mainstream reporters make. But I think blogs do trade in rumors much, much more because blogs basically trade in disinformation. There are a few blogs where I think the bloggers are going out and trying to report information, but that’s a small handful and most bloggers would admit that. And most bloggers would say, ‘That’s not what we do. We look at the game differently than you mainstream guys do and you mainstream guys are co-opted anyway. You’ve been corrupted. We look at it with fresh eyes, we look at it from a distance, we look at it the way a fan would look at it.’ And I think that’s fine. I don’t know why you have to write a blog, though. I think it’s all the American Idol syndrome of someone wanting 15 minutes of fame in the hope of discovery.
Because all these bloggers can do what I did – move to Odessa, Texas, find a story and go out and report it and write it. That’s what journalism is. People say, ‘How’d you write Friday Night Lights?’ Well I had an idea, and I seized upon it, and I found a publisher and the publisher liked the idea. You know … your credentials as a writer are not very important to publishers. What they’re really looking for are great ideas. And if you have a great idea, you’ll get a book contract. And that’s what many bloggers could do if they want. They’re not going to do it if they spend 18 pages on the latest signing by the Kansas City Royals of some backup shortstop. I mean, that’s not writing. That’s just endless blathering.
I also do want to emphasize – Profootballtalk.com is a good blog. There’s something called the Beer Leaguer which writes about the Phillies and I feel writes about the Phillies with honor and integrity and that’s a good blog. The blogs that are narrowly defined in scope and they cover one team, I find to be very good, if you like that team. But I’ve also heard of blogs that are nasty, unremittingly nasty, not just about college athletes, but about high school athletes. And I would also like to point out that everyone said I acted like the worst kind of blogger on the Costas show, which is true, with one huge difference: I didn’t hide behind some anonymous handle. I used my name, and my name is out there – my e-mail is public. One of the things all these blogs could insist upon is that everyone has to use their real names, and it has to be verified. But they won’t do that, because if people have to use their real names, they won’t say the vile things that they say. So at least I had some guts, even if it was woefully misplaced. Because I do feel badly about launching in at Mr. Leitch like that. That was simply not right.
BLITZ: Do you still believe then, that there’s room for thoughtful examination of sports and culture within that medium?
Bissinger: Well, I don’t know. It’s a new medium and it’s exponentially gaining in popularity, and normally what happens is that the bad get weeded out and the good remain. And sure, you look at the blogs that the New York Times does, and they’re really good and they’re very well reported. So there are good models out there. As I said, Joe Posnanski writes a wonderful blog filled with good narrative and he’s a really, really good writer. And you hope that’s the direction in which these blogs will go, and that, bit by bit, these blogs dedicated to who can top who in terms of the most nasty and the most vile and the most despicable and the most disgusting will weed themselves out. But it just may be we’ve become a nation of people who don’t want information, but just want to spout off their opinion about something. And that’s the danger, so it doesn’t really matter what’s right or what’s wrong, as long as someone has an opinion about it. But it’s here, and I better get used to it. I’ve gotten used to it much more in the past two weeks. I’ve looked at a lot of blogs, and as I say, there are some really good ones that really do try to get the facts right.
And rumors are going to pop up in any form of journalism and I’m not here to say that print journalism is perfect. It’s not. But if you want to find great writing, if you want to learn how to write, if you want to emulate, then go to Vanity Fair, go to The New Yorker, go The New Republic, go to The Atlantic. There are places that still try to do it right, and there are newspapers that still try to do it right. Look at Selena Roberts in Sports Illustrated. She’s fantastic.
BLITZ: Friday Night Lights really brought to the public’s attention a lot of serious issues surrounding athletics such as the role of boosters and academics. As you see it, what is a serious issue that’s out there that hasn’t gotten much attention? When you pick up a newspaper or a sports magazine, what do you feel that the conversation is missing?
Bissinger: What I think is missing in the conversation is that every now and then you’ll read some story somewhere condemning the overemphasis of sports in high school, college, or even in grade school. But for every one of those stories, there are about a thousand that endlessly extol and prop up sports. I think sports has reached a crisis point in our society. It is vastly overemphasized. And I think too many kids, men and women are going to school simply so they can play a sport in the hopes of getting a scholarship. I think it’s ridiculously overemphasized at the college level. You know, I used the example of the University of Chicago. It dropped out of the Big 10 when really it was at its peak. Jay Berwanger had won a Heisman trophy three or four years earlier, and that school has more professors who have won the Nobel Prize than any school in the country. So they didn’t suffer from dropping football, and the reason football was dropped because the president … felt that it was simply not compatible with the academic experience. I mean we are just becoming drenched in sports. We’re forcing kids to specialize at the ages of five and six. Anyone who’s experienced a travel team knows the horror of that. You know the number of horrible incidents in Little League that stretch around the world, and we’re not paying attention to it. And we better pay attention to it because life is different now. There’s China. There’s India. The world is global in the sense of countries that we never heard about when I was growing up – and made fun of – are not only catching up to us, they’re surpassing us. And unless we realize that the purpose of life in school is to focus academically, we’re going to be left behind in the dust, because we are a country that makes nothing, that produces nothing. We are dependent on our consumerism, and that’s not a good place to be in.
BLITZ: So really, the cautionary tale of Friday Night Lights – how do you feel that the central theme of this overemphasis has only gotten much worse?
Bissinger: Well, it’s a book that people read and it momentarily makes them think, and pause, and say, ‘Wow, maybe sports is overemphasized.’ Maybe they think that for 10 minutes, maybe they think that for an hour, or maybe think about it for a couple of weeks. But I think in the end they revert to continuing to simply overemphasize sports.