A gridiron classic

Jan. 25, 2005, midnight | By Armin Rosen | 19 years, 5 months ago

Bissinger shines under the "Friday Night Lights"

The best journalism is undoubtedly that which does not read like typical journalism. Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, for instance, wrote in the third person primarily to suck the journalistic tedium out of their Watergate saga "All the President's Men." The result was a modern nonfiction classic. Upton Sinclair is today revered as one of history's most important muckraker journalists. It is both ironic and fitting that his most significant work of journalism was a novel, "The Jungle."

"Friday Night Lights," sportswriter H.G. Bissinger's chronicle of the 1988 Permian High School football team, for whom he attended every practice, team meeting and game while gathering material, reads more like a novel than a style-section feature. This is not because his subject is unique-the author is quick to mention that there are dozens of American towns with a high school football obsession similar to that of Odessa, Texas-but because Bissinger so skillfully organizes and synthesizes his immense findings. The result is a 330-page feature story that reads with the fluency and vividness of the best fiction.

It is of course a bit premature to place "Friday Night Lights" in any kind of literary context, never mind one that puts it alongside "All the President's Men" and "The Jungle" in the pantheon of great journalistic achievement. Indeed, history alone will tell if Bissinger deserves to join the ranks of the Woodwards and Bernsteins and Sinclairs of the world.

He should receive at least some consideration. Through a thoroughness more often found in public prosecutors than sports journalists, Bissinger creates a dynamic cross-section of American life at the latter end of the 20th century, exploring in detail the social, political and economic ramifications of his subject.

What distinguishes "Friday Night Lights" is that this subject is a high school football team. In light of so commonplace a topic it would seem a tad bit arrogant for Bissinger to claim, as he does in the book's preface, that the story of the 1988 Permian High School football squad was somehow microcosmic and indeed symbolic of American society as a whole.

But it's an assertion that he's more than able to back. In Bissinger's adept hands, a topic as seemingly innocuous as high school football finds social, political, and cultural ramifications, and gains incredible complexity and gravity in the process. We learn of racism and politics and economic depression on the West Texas plains; of the region's hopes and history and values, and, most importantly, of how it all relates back to the few-dozen teenagers representing Permian High School under the Friday night lights.

While it is this interconnectedness and the surprising breadth of Bissinger's findings that make "Friday Night Lights" great journalism, it is a fast-paced, entertaining, and very readable writing style that makes this a great book. The book follows the numerous crests and troughs of the '88 season, darting from game to game and relating moments of agonizing defeat and rousing victory. Bissinger seamlessly augments the in-game action with chapters about the Odessa school system, desegregation, and other such issues-portions of the book that are as addictively readable as those recounting the on-field action.

In short, like all great journalism, "Friday Night Lights" stays interesting, and, for the most part, refrains from making any blanket conclusions. Bissinger spends little time meditating on the significance of his discoveries, offers no condemnation of the unerring ubiquity of football in West Texas, and remains neutral in discussions ranging from race to the Permian ground game. Judgmental moments are existent, but few. Just as Woodward and Bernstein left their readers to consider the deterioration of democratic values with the facts presented in "All the President's Men," so too does Bissinger leave it up to the reader to pass judgment on a society
united by football-and fractured by just about everything else.

And, as in "All The President's Men" and "The Jungle," you're liable to be shocked by what you read.

Armin Rosen. Armin is a Seeeeenyor in the Communication Arts Program. "I am a journalist and, under the modern journalist's code of Olympian objectivity (and total purity of motive), I am absolved of responsibility. We journalists don't have to step on roaches. All we have to do … More »

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