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Academics vs. Athletics

Texas students' academic success compromised by overemphasis on football

Published: Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Updated: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 19:07

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By Tony Piedra


The overemphasis of high school football in Texas is now on display for the world to see, thanks to the new movie "Friday Night Lights." The movie, based on a book of the same name by author H.G. Bissinger, tells the true story of the dramatic 1988 season of Odessa's Permian High School football team. Through its narrative, the book (and consequently, the movie) proves why athletics should not become a substitute for an education and what happens when a town places its pride in people who are too young to carry the burden.

As a former resident of Odessa for more than a decade, it is easy to notice the many small inaccuracies in the movie; how "Boobie" Miles actually got hurt in the preseason rather than in the first game, how the trip from Odessa to the Astrodome takes eight hours not six and how Permian lost in the semifinals that year instead of in the finals.

Yet, what is amazing to experienced eyes is how many things the filmmakers got right. It is creepy to watch adults place so much pressure on the young football players, to see what they are willing to sacrifice for something to do on a Friday night and an opportunity to get their town statewide recognition. In Odessa, football coaches really are paid much more than the most experienced teachers, and the high school football games are still the primary conversation topic all year.

The reason athletics are often touted over academics seems obvious: Sports are exciting to an audience, learning is not. An education is a personal experience, but athletic prowess is displayed to the nonparticipating world through competition. Even Bissinger recently admitted in an ESPN interview, "Nothing in life has quite as much pageantry, as much emotion within a finite time frame."

Yet, the problem arises when this time frame concludes and all those who were taught to be athletes all their lives discover that only a few can make a living doing it. The extent in which the boys, such as the team's star running back Boobie, sacrificed their bodies and were pushed to play before their injuries healed, shows what happens when community leaders force children to climax too early in life. Many high school football players deal with injuries as bad as being paralyzed their entire life.

It would be great if children saw this PG-13 movie and decided they should not emulate Boobie's decision to make athletics a higher priority than academics. He sacrificed his innocent youth for a fleeting moment of glory under the Friday night lights, a moment he did not fully receive.

Since Odessa had its dirty laundry presented to the world in many media forms, the strong external critique of the book did a lot to reform the town. In the past couple of years, the panther has been declawed by the book, and Permian football "Mojo" has not nearly been as strong as it was in the '80s. Even though too many academic resources in the town are still devoted to high school football, the residents of Odessa have gone a long way to base their pride on something other than Permian football.

If only every small, sports-obsessed Texas town could have its misplaced priorities displayed for the world to see, perhaps no more young souls would be sacrificed for the adults' entertainment. Unfortunately, this will not happen, so it is important for rational leaders in every community to apply this movie's lesson to their own situations and work to protect children from people who do not care about their academic needs.

Hopefully, the film will carry this moral to the far extents of the nation and reform those who don't have their priorities straight. Bissinger warned that communities should not say "That's Odessa, boy, it's really intense. It'll never be that intense here," because this problem affects every state in the nation.

Every area has athletics that some members of the community would prefer to put above education: say, hockey in Minnesota or basketball in Indiana. It is the obligation of the community leaders to have the good sense to demand for their children an education with a side of athletics, instead of the other way around.

Responsible guardians must ask: "When the Friday night lights go out and high school ends, do our young people graduate with more than just a few good memories? "

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