Friday, December 26, 2008

Friday Night Lights

Over the break I had some time to catch up on the television series Friday Night Lights (FNL), thanks to The show is loosely based on the book by H.G. Bissinger:

Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream is a 1990 non-fiction book written by H. G. Bissinger. The book follows the story of the 1988 Permian High School Panthers football team from Odessa as they made a run towards the Texas state championship. While originally intended to be a Hoosiers-type chronicle of high school sports holding a small town together, the final book ended up being critical about life in the town of Odessa, Texas, complete with portraits of what Bissinger called "the ugliest racism" he has ever witnessed, as well as misplaced priorities, where football conquered most aspects of the town and academics were ignored for the sake of championships.

Bissinger was a sports writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer, when he decided to write a book about high school sports. After a search, he settled on Odessa, TX and their famous Permian Panthers. The Panthers had a long, rich history of winning in Texas' AAAA and AAAAA division, winning championships in 1965, 1972, 1980 and 1984 at the time when Bissinger and his family moved from Philadelphia to Odessa. He spent the entire football season with the Permian Panther players, their families, the coaches, and even many of the townspeople in an effort to understand the town and their football culture and what created such madness for their football team.

In 2002, Sports Illustrated named Friday Night Lights the fourth-greatest book ever written about sports.

Bissinger's book should be of interest to anyone who wants to understand small town American life and its microcosm, the local high school. If you like FNL, I also recommend The Courting of Marcus Dupree, by Willie Morris, about the recruiting of a superstar running back from Missisippi. (Link goes to Google Books version.) FNL didn't feature any real football talents -- although the team was very successful none of the players went on to big time college careers. Dupree on the other hand was one of the top high school backs of all time, breaking Herschel Walker's touchdown record. Read pages 34-44, which will teach you much more about outliers than anything written by Malcolm Gladwell. (Dupree, despite his small school background, had something that the Permian players, with their expensive facilities, highly paid coaching staff and unrivaled football mania, just couldn't match -- raw, god-given talent ;-)

NYTimes review: IN 1964, the town of Philadelphia, Miss., became the symbol of much that was wrong with America - if only by virtue of its having provided the setting for the murders of three young civil-rights workers, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Earl Chaney. Just 17 years later, in the autumn of 1981, Philadelphia became the focus of more benign attention. It was the site of a competition among the nation's leading college football powers to recruit the most highly touted high-school player in the country. ...

The FNL television series is fantastic, and has a devoted following despite mediocre ratings. To get a sense of it, have a look at the following clips. (Note, I am finding on Safari that the hulu embedded players don't work well, which is why I also link directly to the hulu pages where you can view the clips.)

The hard nosed side of big time high school sports. view

Family life in America today. view

Hardscrabble in Texas. view

If you liked those clips, watch this this full episode and this one.


Anonymous said...

I must say your taste in television is peculiar. Most people I have known smart enough to be a physics professor don't watch television at all, except maybe the Olympics and World Cup.

Steve Hsu said...

Most physics professors never played linebacker ;-)

Anonymous said...

There is also an FNL movie...

FNL movie Wikipedia entry



Anonymous said...

"I must say your taste in television is peculiar. Most people I have known smart enough to be a physics professor don't watch television at all, except maybe the Olympics and World Cup."

I find this comment quite peculiar. People who are honestly smart are also open-minded and do not make such simplistic assumptions about anything, even television. Although most TV shows are mediocre or worse, there are definitely exceptions, and Friday Night Lights is one of them. It is an outstanding show.

Unknown said...

Regarding Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers and Marcus Dupree...what does the way his career fizzled out tell us about the relationship between talent and discipline?

Admittedly I'm basing my question on Morris's book and Dupree's wikipedia page: However I do wonder if his talent eventually ran into the phenomenon that Eric S. Raymond describes here. The the "curse of the gifted?" is that eventually you get into an environment where raw talent isn't enough and if you never acquired the discipline to practice and learn then you flounder.

Steve Hsu said...

I can't be sure it applies to Dupree, since I didn't follow his career carefully after he went to the USFL, but I have seen the phenomenon that ESR describes.

There are multiple factors that affect success, and hard work / discipline is one of them.

success vs ability

However, running back (especially at the Div I or NFL level) is one of those positions at which no amount of hard work will compensate for limited natural ability. *Every* successful running back, hard working or lazy, has exceptional athletic talents. I could make similar statements for certain intellectual pursuits.

Gladwell and genius

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