Football culture's ugly allure: My high school tale of love and longing

Growing up in Texas, I always looked at this world from the outside -- and desperately hoped to find meaning in it

Published September 22, 2014 10:58AM (EDT)

Taylor Kitsch and Minka  Kelly in "Friday Night Lights"      (NBC)
Taylor Kitsch and Minka Kelly in "Friday Night Lights" (NBC)

This post originally appeared on the author's web site.

Someone wrote that football is a sublimation of the urge for violence, so that football itself is a symbolic reenactment of war. In Texas it’s rather the case that everything else is a symbolic reenactment of football.

When I won, as a high school junior, a statewide essay writing competition, I was invited with sundry other academic winners to a celebration at the capitol. Rick Perry was to preside. All of us — champions in debate, calculus, physics, music, literary criticism and more — gathered on the floor of the Texas state Senate to accept Gov. Perry’s congratulations.

Perry took the podium as he does, with all folksy gravitas, gripping its edges in each hand. But when he addressed us he didn’t talk about academic achievement. He talked about football.

“Everything you’ve accomplished here, y’know, it’ll carry you through life … it reminds me of when I was in high school, and I competed in six-man football.”

Perry said football made him the man he was, that it taught him what he needed to know to become the governor of Texas. It was our express privilege to be compared to football players. We all knew we didn’t really deserve it, that this was a gift to us. We’d all scatter at the end of the event and go back to our schools, where we would be vaguely ashamed of having won in our dorky events, which seemed not only stuffily lame but selfish in their inhospitality to spectators. It just isn’t entertaining to sit and watch someone write an award-winning essay.

But football is different. If you watch, if you cheer, if you wait all day for Friday night, you too can be a part of it. Football can elevate you, it can transform you, here are scholarships to change your class and  spiritual cultivation to change your nature; here’s community, here’s adulation, here’s affirmation, as long as you’ve got something to offer the team. And if you wind up used up and worn out at the end of it, you’re still lucky you had that one moment. Not everyone gets one, after all.

I’m still waiting on mine.

* * *

In every high school football film — "Remember the Titans," "The Blind Side," "Friday Night Lights" – there’s one stream of continuity: football is transformative. Football can raise people from different class backgrounds, races or temperaments to the exact same level of glory. It’s all about meritocracy, or so the story goes; it doesn’t matter if you’re shy and sheepish and poor and black, if you’re Michael Oher, you can be part of a well-spoken wealthy white community insofar as you can play ball. This central conceit is the one that motivates so much dewy-eyed opining about football: It’s a window to opportunity.

In school districts all over the United States, this trope is played out in real life — to a degree. Poor black players are plucked from their communities and invited into the exclusive precincts of wealthier, whiter worlds, so long as they can win games. It’s an epidemic of sorts in the Washington. D.C.. area, and not remotely unheard of in Texas and Oklahoma. With scholarships on the line, football is touted as a pipeline to a stable future, for the motivated and skillful. Of course, it’s not often mentioned that those scholarships can leave players — especially poor, black players — just as precarious and vulnerable as they are seeking some path to security via football in high school.

Which is only if they make it that far. Most won’t. Of the ones that do, certain exchanges are made. A Texan district that nixed its athletics program certainly saw particular benefits:

That first semester, 80 percent of the students passed their classes, compared with 50 percent the previous fall. About 160 people attended parent-teacher night, compared with six the year before. Principal Ruiz was so excited that he went out and took pictures of the parking lot, jammed with cars. Through some combination of new leadership, the threat of closure, and a renewed emphasis on academics, Premont’s culture changed. “There’s been a definite decline in misbehavior,” says Desiree Valdez, who teaches speech, theater, and creative writing at Premont. “I’m struggling to recall a fight. Before, it was one every couple of weeks.”

Meanwhile, the no-pass-no-play proviso meant to keep academics on the radar of high school athletes is notoriously cheatable; even teachers are subject, it seems, to the powerful allure of football culture. Who wants to be the spoilsport who failed Johnny Football and screwed the whole school? But even if athletes aren’t exactly getting the futures they’re promised, and even if academics are often sidelined to a deleterious degree, there’s still something worse: mounting evidence suggesting the profusion of permanent injuries:

“…researchers led by Dr. Ann McKee at Boston University have discovered CTE in the brains of dozens of deceased football players. Among the youngest players found to have had the disease were 18-year-old Eric Pelly, who played a number of sports including football, and Owen Thomas, a college football player who hanged himself at the age of 21…Despite such concern, the authors found that “there is still a culture among athletes” that resists the self-reporting of concussions. Moreover, they noted, “youth profess that the game and the team are more important than their individual health and that they may play through a concussion to avoid letting down their teammates, coaches, schools and parents.””

It’s hard to see the sublime transformation of a truly meritocratic enterprise at work when vulnerable kids are being used like employees with fewer regulations regarding their health. It looks, rather, like the pageantry of capitalism at work: the veneer of mobility circling a core of exploitation that leaves black kids and poor kids at special risk for getting used up and tossed aside. That’s life, you might say, and it is, but what other form of exploitation earns such ardent theological esteem?:

“As a Christian, my view is completely different. My body is not me, but the temporary vessel my soul inhabits. And while I should obviously care for my body, the care and feeding of my soul — the building of my character — is by far the most important consideration. Does the sheer joy of athletic competition, combined with the necessity of overcoming fear in the face of real risk, build character? It can and does. Is it worth risks to the body to build character? Absolutely.”

When theology is comically bad, it’s usually a shill. And this, too, is a shill: This is the religious pageantry of capitalism, the point where the megachurch pastor takes the field in all the floodlights to pray his team wins, and to wild applause. If football were about building character, you could play it in the yard with your daddy and cousins on Thanksgiving and get the full effect. High school football is an industry, a money-maker, and guess who’s getting paid?

“Texas communities thrive on football of all levels, from the Cowboys down to local high schools. With so much value placed on football success, high school head coaches are paid to produce. Information requested from area school districts shows 46 area coaches make an average of $88,420 a year. At the same time, teachers in the North Texas region (for grades 7-12) make $51,452 a year.”

Some coaches make over $100,000 a year. That data comes from my hometown, Arlington, Texas, a place I look back on in exile; I was in exile, too, while I was there.

* * *

Homecoming is a fifth season in Texas. It asserts itself in hazy late summer and reigns until the depth of autumn. Traditionally, the boys give girls homecoming mums to wear, and the girls give the boys garters. The mums can cost upward of $100, some larger than dinner plates, their ribbons trailing the ground. They sport miniature mascots, fake flowers, blinking lights, lashings of glitter and sequins, and each year grow more ostentatious. My mother has a collection of four from when she was a high school cheerleader.

I never got one. I never got asked to a homecoming dance, or prom. My mom tried to show me how to do my makeup.

It’s all in how you carry yourself …

It’s not, though. There is a sharp insider versus outsider distinction in high school football culture, and while the girls who are immortalized as the girlfriends of quarterbacks and the crown jewels of cheerleading squads may hearken to "Friday Night Lights’" Lyla Garrity and Marcia Brady, that kind of cachet can come with a price. The people of Steubenville, for example, seemed to know exactly what the stakes in its now infamous rape case were the moment the news broke:

Rumors of a possible crime spread, and people, often with little reliable information, quickly took sides. Some residents and others on social media blamed the girl, saying she put the football team in a bad light and put herself in a position to be violated. Others supported the girl, saying she was a victim of what they believed was a hero-worshiping culture built around football players who think they can do no wrong.

You’re in or out, and silence is a membership fee. Given mature perspective it’s easy to imagine any one of us would distinguish the temporary from the permanent and recognize abuse when and where it took place. But the calculus run by girls in the position to report sexual abuse in football culture isn’t ridiculous. If you tell, there’s a lot to lose. In some jurisdictions, for instance, minors can incur penalties (including suspension from extracurriculars) just for being present at parties where alcohol was served; when star players are involved, even single disciplinary actions can enrage entire communities.

And if you keep it to yourself, it could be you up there, under the arch of team colors balloons, your hair and shoulders dusted with flecks of glitter and confetti, with the floodlights gleaming on your crown. This is not a ridiculous desire. Even with all the heinous community backlash aside, it isn’t wrong to think if you miss this now you might miss it forever.

You might.

* * *

If the NFL is where all the toxic machismo, exploitation and physical torment of football achieve their highest expression and form a culture of death, then high school football culture bears all of those seeds. Vulnerable kids are pawns for careerism and cash-raking they never see the benefits of, while the crowds cheer for a sport that’s all-American precisely because it promises extraordinary social mobility it doesn’t usually deliver. If it’s fun and character forming, then it’s not because of the injury and precariousness and dislocation, but in spite of those things.

I knew all this then, when I was there, and maybe that’s why I was always outside of it. But I don’t hate it. On Friday nights I used to come back with my debate team from tournaments that lasted until midnight, and we’d pour out of the van exhausted into the empty parking lot that abutted our football field, and the stands would be littered with concessions packaging and the air would smell like popcorn and cotton candy, electric. Longing set in. It never went away.

And even now I entertain strange daydreams of going back to my hometown and covering a season of high school football, getting to know the players and coaches and finally being swept up in it like I always wanted to be then. Now that I’ve achieved a little, now that I’m better than I was back then — not exactly an enormous success, but I have a little bit of dignity — maybe, I imagine, I’d be good enough to join in this thing, uncritically, and be welcomed by it.

And that’s the allure, that’s the trick. It reproduces itself because we go on wanting it, and the reasons we want it are not cynical: We want it to be true that honest talent can get you ahead, that these things that inspire our communities are sites of genuine togetherness, that these moments strung together amount to something that is as meaningful as it seems. I confess I think I’ll peer into that world forever, longing.

By Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig