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Friday Night Lights: Football, Feminism and Trailblazers

With the first full-time female referee appointed to the NFL last week, Elle Hunt examines the low-key feminist crusaders who blazed the fictional way in Friday Night Lights. //

Friday Night Lights is ostensibly about a high school football team in Texas – but is actually about being a good friend and partner and parent, especially when that is the hardest thing in the world to do. There’s an exchange towards the end of the final season that testifies to both the importance and inadequacy of “trailblazing women”.

In a bid to persuade a reluctant Coach Taylor to involve her in coaching the East Dillon Lions, Jess Merriweather presents him with a print-out of a newspaper profile of the first female high school football coach. So far, so Sandberg – women in positions of power, especially in male-dominated fields, make paths possible for other women.

But Coach Taylor dismisses her as a “pest”. Later, he expands: The first female high school football coach is only a news story because there isn’t a second.

Natalie Wilkinson…
Do you mean Natalie Watson?
Watson! That’s why I couldn’t find it when I looked it up. 14,000 high school football coaches around this country. That’s one. You like those odds?
No, actually. I think they stink.
So do I. You know it’s a man’s game. Men play this game. Certain men. Angry men. Fierce men. Tough men.
I’m not asking to play.

Coach Taylor pauses, struggling to find the words – or to formulate an opinion. He’s a mostly-exemplary husband, a father to daughters, and leaps and bounds above the other men of Dillon, Texas. Despite his treatment of and relationships with women – he’s struggling with the concept of a female coach. Whether it’s because of preconceptions and prejudices he perhaps didn’t know he had, or fear of what he might be complicit in putting Jess through by letting her have her way, we have only the obvious doubt on his face to go by.

Shadows are silent. Shadows don’t make any noise. You don’t even know shadows are there. Shadows certainly don’t talk back… Welcome aboard.

Last week, the National Football League – the big time that every character in Friday Night Lights dreamed of making after high school – confirmed the appointment of its first full-time female referee. Sarah Thomas, a 41-year-old pharmaceutical sales rep, will serve as a line judge for the 2015 season, having already been the first woman to officiate a major college football game (in 2009) and to officiate in a “Big Ten” stadium (in 2011).

As Natalie Watson’s existence gives Jess hope for her coaching dreams – and reminds Coach of the odds against her – Thomas’ appointment means both something and nothing. It’s something in that football is the most popular sport in the United States. NFL is the wealthiest league in the world, and Thomas’ part in it is a reminder to real-life girls like Jess to keep pushing through the barriers to their dreams.

But it means nothing because – though her appointment is unprecedented – it doesn’t necessarily set a precedent. It’s trite, even boring to trot out the figures again – but it’s 2015 and women make up, and have always made up, as far as I’m aware – half the population. We’re celebrating the rise of one woman in a male-dominated field as though it’s a win for us all. It took a labour dispute – presumably tying up all the men – for a woman, Shannon Eastin, to be hired to work at an NFL game for the first time. She worked as a replacement for three games in 2012.

Three years later, the NFL has one full-time female referee. It’s been almost half a decade since season five of Friday Night Lights aired, and the odds still stink. But that might not bother Thomas, a 19-year veteran of the sport, who said on Wednesday she considered herself a football official first, a woman second. (And to be clear: there’s nothing wrong with that.)

“I’m a female, and I can’t change that. Just because I love the game of football and officiating, I do honour the fact that a lot of people consider me a trailblazer. But as far as being forced into a trailblazer role… I don’t feel that way. I’ve just been doing it truly because I love it. When you’re out there officiating, the guys don’t think of me as a female. I mean, they want me to be just like them – just be an official – and that’s what I’ve always set out to do.”

In her position, Jess Merriweather might have said much the same thing. Friday Night Lights isn’t defined as a feminist show – but it features more feminist crusaders than you’d reasonably expect of serial drama about a high school football team that is set in Texas. Most notably Tami Taylor and, in later seasons, her protégé Tyra Collette.

Jess isn’t one of them. The only woman in the show to demonstrate a love for and knowledge of the sport. She’s a cheerleader only because it takes her closer to the touchline, and outright refuses to be a rally girl when it reduces the game to the relationship between celebrity and fan. Her concept of feminism extends only so far as recognising unfairness when she comes up against obstacles that don’t apply to Coach Taylor, or her little brothers, or her star-quarterback boyfriend Vince, who she runs through drills over the summer.

When she rallies for a role with the East Dillon Lions, first as equipment manager and then shadowing Coach Taylor, she doesn’t argue that women make up half the population, that women in leadership roles are important for achieving parity between the sexes, etc. Not because that would have precisely zero impact on Coach – but because it doesn’t occur to her. She pushes for a position because she wants it, and she knows she’d be good at it, and the resistance she encounters is unfair.

With her dad a former football star, Jess grew up with the game. Thomas was inspired to become an official in the 1990s when she attended a meeting with her brother. As a college basketball player, she was used to seeing female referees, and had no idea that football was not as welcoming. (Relatively, the NBA has a much better track record of appointing women. It’s onto its third full-time female official after appointing Violet Palmer in 1997 – who is also its first openly gay referee.)

“I said, ‘Can girls go to that?’,” she recalled. “He said, ‘I guess so, sis … Uh, you may get a few strange stares. These are a bunch of old men set in their ways’.”

Today, those old men haven’t relaxed “their ways” as much as you might have expected. But the similarities between Thomas’ story that’s unfolding in real-time, and Jess’ set in Friday Night Light‘s Texas forever, are reminders of the struggles that still exist for women in male-dominated fields – as well as the thorniness of engaging with them.

Coach Taylor isn’t a bad man for thinking twice about giving Jess a role on the team, just as Jess isn’t a bad woman for fighting him on grounds of fairness, not feminism – just as Thomas wants to be recognised as a referee, not a trailblazer.

But though there is no onus on Jess or Thomas to pursue their passion for the benefit of all women, there is one on people like Coach who are in a position to do something about that inequity.

“We had her in the preseason last year and she did a good job,” Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of Thomas’ appointment. “She’s got to be one of the better ones we have. So it’s about time. Get these guys straightened out a little bit, get these gals in there. She’s a good ref, so it was a good choice.”

It’s a reminder that, in plenty of male-dominated fields, it’s ‘about time’ for a woman to be hired. Especially when there’s one so immediate and so capable that it would be counter-intuitive, even negligent, to overlook her. Like the concerned tone of the USA Today headline “Trailblazer Sarah Thomas may be first of many female NFL officials”, Harbaugh sounds like he’s daring someone to suggest her appointment is well overdue. Coach puts aside his doubts and even goes out on a limb to address odds that he agrees – “stink”. On that point, Friday Night Lights is ahead of both its time and ours.

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