physical harm. Warnings that if I came to town, I'd better bring bodyguards.
Vows that wherever I went, people would be in my face. What had I done to merit
such hostility from citizens of the boom-and-bust oil town of Odessa, Texas? I
had written a book called Friday Night Lights (an adaptation of which ran in
the Sept. 17 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED). That's right. I was threatened
because of a book about high school football.
uninitiated, those who haven't been to a high school football game on a Friday
night in Texas, that probably sounds absurd. In fact, it is an all-too-typical,
and disturbing, indication of the increasingly unhealthy influence of sports on
American life. I am convinced the same thing could have happened in western
Pennsylvania or Ohio or the Deep South. It happened in Odessa because Odessa
was the setting for Friday Night Lights.
Maybe I should
have laughed off the threats that were phoned to the two bookstores that
several months earlier had invited me to come to Odessa to sign copies of the
book. Maybe I overreacted when I decided to cancel those signings and the other
promotional activities planned to kick off publication of the book. But I don't
think so. I lived in Odessa for a year, and I know how important high school
football is to the psyche of the town. I know I was right to take those
warnings seriously, and I was not alone.
took the book as an attack on their values," said Eric Smalley, manager of
the B. Dalton bookstore in Odessa. "I believe the author is wise to stay
away, at least for the time being."
Lights chronicles the fortunes of the Odessa Permian High Panthers during the
1988 football season. Permian is the most successful high school team in modern
Texas history, with five state championships to its credit since 1965. The
pride the Panthers have brought to Odessa, a lonely, hardscrabble oil town of
100,000 in the middle of the vacant West Texas plains, is real and in many ways
quite wonderful. I think those feelings of pride are captured in the book. I
also felt obliged, however, to write about another, far less glorious, side of
the Permian program.
That other side
included some horrifyingly racist attitudes: The year I was there a coach on
the Permian staff described a black player to me as a "big ol' dumb
nigger." The book detailed the use of painkillers to enable players
(remember, these are high school kids) to perform with broken ankles and hip
pointers. The book also criticized a school that budgeted more money during the
1988-89 school year for rush-order films of Permian's games than for teaching
materials for the English department.
adaptation, coupled with the release of the book, set loose a flurry of heated
emotions in Odessa. Some people liked what I had to say; others didn't. I was
accused of betrayal and of slanting the truth. Still, the reaction was only
words at that point, and I had every intention of going to Odessa.
atmosphere changed. The publication of the book coincided with Permian's being
turned in by the coach of the other high school in town, Odessa High, for
conducting supervised workouts before the official start of fall practice. On
Sept. 20, the executive committee of the University Inter-scholastic League
found Permian guilty of the infraction and banned the Panthers from
participating in this year's state playoffs. The ruling sent many people in
Odessa into a frenzy. Instead of acknowledging that Permian had broken the
rules, they looked for someone to blame and quickly found me. Without the
disturbing revelations in the book, they reasoned, no one would have cared
about Permian in the first place. The day after the ruling, the Waldenbooks and
B. Dalton stores in Odessa reported to my publisher, Addison-Wesley, that they
had received threats against me.
There are many
decent, right-thinking people in Odessa, but there are many others who have
built their lives around Permian football and who have lost all perspective on
what a game should be. I knew the ban on postseason play would shatter them.
Although there was not a shred of evidence to suggest the book had anything to
do with the league ruling, it was obvious I was to be the scapegoat.
In assessing the
situation, I spoke with several people in Odessa whom I trust. When they told
me I would be crazy to come, I canceled the trip. Yes, I was scared to go to
Odessa. I never for a moment thought my life was in danger, but I did consider
it a real possibility that someone would try to throw a punch or two or three.
My face may not be handsome, but I do have an interest in keeping it