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Threats of 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.
To the 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.
"People here 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."
Friday Night 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.
The SI 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.
Then the 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 intact.