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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

February 8, 2023: Football Figures: Texas

[For this year’s annual Super Bowl series, I wanted to focus on some football figures & communities. Leading up to a special weekend tribute to some of our best current public scholarly SportsStudiers!]

On a few different ways to AmericanStudy football’s place in the Lone Star State.

High school football has apparently been huge in Texas for a good long while, but the last couple decades have seen some high-profile cultural representations of Texas high school football and thus brought it to more mainstream attention. The trends goes back at least to the films Varsity Blues (1999) and Friday Night Lights (2004), although it can be taken back nearly a decade earlier to the best-selling 1990 Buzz Bissinger book on which the latter was based. And it certainly achieved another level of popular prominence during the five-season run of the cult favorite and award-winning televison show, also titled Friday Night Lights (2006-2011). In their own ways, each of these cultural texts reveals the appeal of big-time high school football: combining the thrill of sports played at a high level with the universal and complex realities of teenage and family life, the possibility of heroism (there’s a reason why “My Hero” was the theme song of Varsity Blues) with the realities and challenges of everyday existence.

So I get why high school football strikes a chord, and thus why stories of the state where it’s particularly huge are compelling for American audiences. But Texas high school football is also emblematic of a significant national problem with priorities: that we’ve come to support educational athletics (at the high school and collegiate levels) more and more at the same time that we’re defunding and cutting and generally failing to support education in every other way. There are plenty of details and stories that symbolize those (at least) mixed-up educational priorities, but I’ve never encountered a more striking one than the $60 million high school football stadium at Allen High in Texas. No, that’s not a typo—this venue for high school athletics—for one high school sport—cost $60 million in public funds, money that, to quote that story, the school district “know[s] full well it will never recoup.” Frankly, the public funding element, aggravating as it is (although the bond measure did receive 60% approval—they do love their high school football in Texas, apparently), isn’t even the issue here—even if the $60 million were all private donations, I would say exactly the same thing: take the money, thank everybody very much, and then build a $5 million dollar stadium and use the remaining $55 million for public high schools throughout the state. Maybe that’s not legal, but it’s sure as hell logical.

So I get the allure of Texas high school football, and am at the same time very frustrated by what it means in our contemporary society and moment. There’s at least one more American layer to this onion, though, and it’s probably the most complicated and double-edged of them all. On the one hand, high school football, like all sports but perhaps more than most (and certainly more than professional sports), has the potential to bring a community together, to offer unifying hope and possibility even in particularly dark and difficult times (such as ours). Yet on the other hand, while high school sports can seem to offer such hope and possibility for the individuals who take part in them, I would argue that in many (indeed, most) individual cases those things are alluring, promises of potential futures that will never come true and can instead keep the individual from focus on his or her more definite and significant next steps. (Cf. Hoop Dreams.) So is Texas high school football a source of hope or an illusion of it? Does it serve important communal and national purposes, or does it distract and take away from what we should be doing and focusing on? As is so often the case with the questions I focus on here, the answer, confusingly but critically, is yes on all counts.

Next football figure tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Football figures or communities you’d highlight?

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