Last week Joe and I took Buzz Bissinger to dinner. You may not know Bissinger, but if you live in Odessa or have watched TV or movies in the last 10 years, then you know Friday Night Lights, the book he wrote about Permian football while he was living here in 1988. That book has taken off and made a life on its own, and despite Bissinger winning the Pulitzer Prize for other work he’s done, FNL is still the one that makes him famous.
So, we took him to dinner at Cork and Pig. And this is why it was us, not some city delegation or sports fan organization. It was us because nobody else, and I mean nobody, crickets I tell you, was lining up to do it.
We knew Bissinger was coming to town to mark the 25h anniversary of FNL and we knew reception was chilly, yes, a quarter of a century later. Midland, our sister city, was pulling out the stops at their schools and hosting a $100/ticket event. Compare that to Odessa, where our local Hastings was hosting his book signing for free with 20 chairs set up just in case a tiny line formed. Brrrrrr. Chilly I told you.
And, many would say, rightfully so. I asked a friend who grew up here and graduated from Permian in the 80’s what he thought of Bissinger. He said he was a Yankee carpetbagger who took advantage of good people’s hospitality by throwing them under a bus so he could make a buck by selling their stories. So, there’s that. Midland likes Bissinger because he wrote about them without making them look bad. Odessa has some black-eye moments from Bissenger’s aggressive writing fist as he tells it like it is about the racism and misplaced priorities of that era in our town. And the healing apparently is not complete in our vision.
So I emailed Bissinger as he was coming in town because I thought- what an opportunity! First, an opportunity for our church’s Pub Theology group to talk to a Jewish man who has made his writing niche in sports ethics. Second, an opportunity for me as a new Odessan to welcome this man who has a national platform to talk about Odessa. What if he returns to New York and says how little has changed here? What if his impression is that we are still just as bigoted and defensive as ever? So I invited him.
To my utter surprise, he said yes, he’d love to have dinner, and talk about faith and football. I rounded up a few people in our Pub Theology group, about a dozen of us. We sat out on the porch and shared margaritas and chips. Here’s some of what I asked him (I’m paraphrasing):
q: What bothers you the most about sports today?
a: That inner city kids actually think they have a better shot of being in the NFL than of being a doctor. Studies show they believe this! Their parents buy into this too, that if you become a professional football player, you’ve got it made, so that’s what kids should try to do. It’s ridiculous. It’s like being an athlete is more heroic, more wanted than being a firefighter or something. And their education is absolutely shot because they aren’t trying to be anything but athletes. It’s Boobie Miles all over again.* But no one listens.
q: You wrote the first “reveal” article on Caitlyn Jenner. Did they ask you because you’re a sports writer? Do you think the heroic concept we have of male athletes contributed to her struggle?
a: I’ve known Caitlyn for a long time, and yes. Jenner felt like she absolutely could not deal with who she really was because there she was on the Wheaties box as an icon of masculinity. Caitlyn felt like she was holding that up for our society and it was her responsiibility to do that. It nearly killed her. She is a kind and brilliant person, and still a tremendous athlete.
q: Talk about your call to end college football.
a: Well, obviously it’s not going to happen. But the problem is that the way college football is today, it’s a form of slavery. These kids are working their a**es off and Nick Saban is getting $5 million, don’t know what Charlie Strong is getting, and the kids get nothing. They get injured, they get brain damage, but no compensation for their work while the universities rake it in. It’s not right, and everybody know it.
q: Out of your Jewish roots, do you think of yourself as being like a Hebrew prophet, somebody who tells the truth, and the chips fall where they may?
a: That’s why I got into journalism. I went into this field during the Watergate era, when we were all hopeful that journalism done right could- what is it?- afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. That’s what I’ve tried to do in my career.
q: Do you understand the animosity Odessans feel about you? Do you have any regrets?
a: You know, there was a lot I enjoyed about Odessa, and I put that in the book. Plus, I loved those kids on that team and love them to this day. That said, everything I said in the book was true and I would take none of it back. (At this point Buddy Hale, who had joined us at dinner and was assistant principal at Permian during the time Bissinger was writing, spoke up. “Everything he wrote was accurate,” he said, pointing his finger at all of us.) I hope it has made a difference here, and I feel like it has. When I met the principal at Permian today, and toured the new building, I felt like things had changed. Do you think things have changed here?
Our tablemates looked at each other for a second, and then jumped in to talk about the emphasis we have now on getting first-generation college students to and through college. We mentioned that the arts have grown in Odessa, and we reminded him the fact that the football teams haven’t been the same since the era he lived here. But, Bissinger warned, Permian is ranked this year in the Top 25 in Texas. “Be careful,” he said. “Don’t let history repeat itself.”
I asked one last question:
q: So do you have a favorite Hebrew prophet?
a: Not sure, maybe Micah. What prophet do I remind you of?
I answered that he reminds me of Jonah. It’s not that Odessa’s like Ninevah, I said, but you were sent to Odessa and you lived to tell about it. And I do think you changed us a little.
* Miles was a player on the 1988 whose future was stunted by poverty and racism. Bissinger has been a surrogate father to Miles, who is currently in prison.