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Friday Night Lights and the Mass Psychosis of High School Sports

Friday Night Lights examined the side effects of a small town’s obsession with high school sports. Don Rowe reflects on the show’s realism through comparison to his own rugby career at Hamilton Boys High.

“Do you think God loves football?”
“I think everyone loves football.”

– Jason Street and a young fan, Friday Night Lights

For an entire year I was in what was probably the best under-14 rugby team in the country. We really kicked ass. After posting scores of 120-0 over our nearest rivals, we were moved up an age group, which we proceeded to dominate without a single loss. Everyone was stoked. I hated it.

I was in my tenth and final year of rugby. Gone were the carefree days of my early career, cherubic joy replaced by callous indifference. I attempted to retire, aged 11, but management had invested heavily in me and insisted I return to the field.

“You’re bloody well playing, alright?” said Dad, assertively.

It sucked. My body, wet and unwilling, would be tackled into the frozen mud of shitty high school fields all across the Waikato, every Saturday morning for months at a time. “Get in there boys,” the collective dads would holler, a single shuffling entity, gumbooted and jacketed on the sidelines. “Good game,” they’d tell me afterwards. Was it? Objectively, yes.

I played for Hamilton Boys’ High School, a school synonymous with rugby and one of the few caveats in the national desire for the city’s secession. At HBHS, when the summer-children on the cricket pitch came shivering into the warmth around May, the socked-and-booted champions of the school would issue forth, shorts dashingly short, mouthguards just so. Resplendent in black and maroon, their golden lion crests heavy with expectation, and quite a lot of prestige. Or that’s how they’d like to be perceived anyway. To me, the atmosphere at HBHS resembled the patriotic frenzy before a major conflict. It was your responsibility, nay your duty, to lay your body down for the pride of the school.

The HBHS First XV has won three Sanix World Rugby Youth International tournaments in the past five years; a feat they’re pretty bloody proud of. They’re also the current Super 8 champions as well as the defending New Zealand Secondary Schools champions thank you very much, and by the way, did you notice the trophies at reception?

Eventually, sick of the constant bodily attrition, I quit rugby and took up sanctioned fist fighting. In 2009, perhaps channeling my frustration at being forced into striped socks for so many years, I claimed a national title and the right to represent New Zealand at the world champs in Serbia. Not bad, eh? The school was unimpressed, however, and word of my achievement was tucked away beneath a second-division hockey team’s 5th place. I was pretty pissed at the time, but on reflection that’s just how things are prioritised at a school like Hamilton Boys’ – they’re a rugby machine with no room for the grit of a dissident in their well-oiled cogs.

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There are interesting parallels between the manic sporting culture at Hamilton Boys’ and that of the fictional Dillon High, centrepoint of the critically-acclaimed series Friday Night Lights. The town of Dillon is modelled on Odessa, Texas; the setting for Pulitzer prize winner H.G Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team and a Dream. Seeking to understand the role of high school football in America, Bissinger immersed himself in a football-crazed Texas town as their high school team chased down the state championship in the late ‘80s.

However, after a year spent with the athletes, coaches and townspeople, Friday Night Lights became much more a cultural critique than a cheerful reflection on small-town pride. Through the microcosm of Dillon, the television adaptation explores many of the issues raised in Bissinger’s original work, as well as those facing teenagers across the board.

There’s nothing overly original in the concept. Sports have been used as a medium for social commentary since forever, but what sets Friday Night Lights apart is the fact that it’s actually good. Sure, everyone is conveniently attractive, and the power of a montage to get the team in shape is exaggerated, but on the whole it’s surprisingly free of the cringe-factor typical of sports on the big screen.

That’s important, because I’m so averse to on screen cheese I might as well be lactose intolerant. As a competitive martial artist, I really wanted to enjoy the Never Back Down films. Honestly, I did. Maybe secret agents feel the same when they watch a James Bond movie, but I just couldn’t suspend my disbelief in the face of such tomfoolery. “No, no! That doesn’t happen in real life. That’s not how it works!”

It appears to be a particularly American thing to wring every last drop of authenticity out of a subject; the prevailing ideology seems to be along the lines of ‘why have the real thing, when you can have more?’ That seems to have been kept to a minimum with Friday Night Lights.

This authenticity is particularly interesting because some of the characters are totally fucking insane. It’s a legitimate, believable mania though, with echos of my time at HBHS. The armchair experts on the sidelines aren’t always obtrusive and raving, they’re often just passive-aggressive snakes. They share vicariously in the glories of victory, but it’s not their fingers being trampled into the dirt by steel-sprigged boots.

During the pilot episode of Friday Night Lights, star quarterback Jason Street goes down in the opening game of the season with a potential spinal injury. There’s a heavy, almost post-coital, pause as everything screeches to a halt. Even as a viewer I felt responsible: “We did this”. But then another thought. “Who’s going to replace Street?” The answer is young Matt Saracen, and he’s pretty shit. It’s an uncomfortable moment as it becomes apparent exactly what the crowd are more upset about. Chalk Street up to collateral damage, we’ve got a game to win, dammit!

Against the odds, Saracen executes a perfect snatch with just seconds to go, throws the ball downfield and running-back Smash touches down to secure the victory. The crowd goes wild. The girls are dancing, the band is playing, and gruff Texan men embrace. It’s a real feel good moment. Saracen is relieved. All is well. Except, of course, for Street, who’s strapped to a hospital bed under the grandstand having his helmet removed with a power tool.

It’s some heavy cognitive dissonance. As the fans rush the field to celebrate, Street is face down, an oxygen pipe forcing his mouth open, his spine being exposed with a scalpel.

While injuries of this severity are obviously few and far between in New Zealand, one only needs look at the ACC statistics to see that rugby isn’t exactly safe. Yet still it remains a pillar of life at most schools around the country, not just HBHS. Our national heroes are people like Buck Shelford, who played a ‘full 80’ with his testicles torn open. Objectively, that’s fucking stupid. Subjectively, it’s still fucking stupid. But as the Panther’s coach Eric Taylor repeats like some kind of mantra to ward off guilt, ‘that’s football’.

Despite Saracen’s improving form, staff around Coach Taylor begin the hunt for a new starting quarterback to replace Street almost immediately, and they aren’t afraid to look outside the box. A young refugee from Hurricane Katrina has caught the eye of scouts across the State, and a local car dealer/former footballer is determined to secure his services, whatever the cost. For his part, Ray ‘Voodoo’ Tatum is a gun for hire, with loyalties only to his dream of reaching the NFL.

The issues of scouting and poaching have been integral to rugby for as long as I can remember. It’s no different at HBHS, or any other top level rugby school in the country for that matter. It’s all done under an oh-so-benevolent guise, ‘we’re providing opportunities for the underprivileged’ and all that, but you best believe they’re conveniently athletic underprivileged kids. So what if they barely speak English and are unlikely to assimilate into the mainstream – as long as they’re built like grown men, the rules can be bent.

Because, as we see in Friday Night Lights with Jason Street, what matters isn’t the individual player. That’d mean the party is over all too soon. It’s about the continuation of a tradition, by God. It really is the sunk-cost fallacy made flesh; this has to mean something, we’ve invested too much for it not to!

Or maybe I’m a sourpuss looking from the outside in. In Michael King’s history of New Zealand, he notes that “rugby was, along with drinking in public bars, one of the twin pillars of New Zealand male culture.” It continues to be so today, as football is to the town of Dillon, so rugby is to Hamilton. That shouldn’t mean, however, that these sports should be free of analysis or critique, albeit empathetic and in context. It’s the way that Friday Night Lights’ does just this, while at the same time providing an enthralling show free from overt cliché, that makes it so damn special.

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