The Limits Of Sports Metaphors

A review of two books about high school football.

Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.

By now we are all familiar with the well-trodden narratives of the hardworking quarterback whose heart is in the right place, the coach with the stiff upper lip who needs to win and wants to help (and his tireless, supportive wife), the arrogant skill players for whom high school is a stop along the way to the NFL and all the others whose various off-field plights will be inevitably be overcome with each yard the team gains. 

Today, stories about a scrappy high school football team fighting against the odds for the seemingly-eternal glories of a state championship are cliché. The reason for that, of course, is Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, A Dream (Addison-Wesley, 1990) — the book/movie/TV show/cultural phenomenon that found art, artifice, triumph and tragedy in what its author H.G. Bissinger referred to as the “haunted plains of West Texas.” 

Bissinger’s book became a prototype because it is remarkable — more a portrait of the city of Odessa, Texas than of the Permian High School Panthers, told in such a way that Odessa (a place many readers likely have never given much thought) becomes not just interesting but important. The writing is bold and dramatic but rarely feels exaggerated, probably because Bissinger wrings emotions from his subjects instead of trying to articulate his own. His observations place the reader not just in the locker room but practically breathing down the necks of the players as they try to live up to the superhuman expectations of every person they’ve ever known. Predictably, it is harsher and more abrasive than either the movie or the TV show, and better for it. People in Odessa absolutely hated it.

friday night lights

Most ensuing interpretations of the narrative Bissinger laid out were less careful than he was about the inevitable tradeoffs that go along with turning living people into characters. Instead of trying to make sense of the Panthers’ victories and failures by sanding their edges down and omitting inconvenient truths while amplifying more useful ones, he allowed people to simply be people instead of parables. The team doesn’t win the state championship, and it’s neither a reflection of their character nor a grave injustice — it simply is. 

Bissinger portrays a system so rigged and convoluted, one where priorities are so irrevocably skewed, that what the players and the team choose to do at any given moment is almost moot. They are basically cogs, if well-developed and deeply understood cogs, and their realization or denial of that fact is the point of the book — not football.

The book laid bare the exact realities the people of Odessa sought to escape through high school football, and that’s one reason why they loathed it. It’s also why those who seek to tell stories must always weigh the consequences of the process — must seriously interrogate their own essays towards objectivity, and accordingly acknowledge those who might be hurt by their inevitable subjectivity. Is it worth it? Is the story important enough to those at its center, and misunderstood or ignored enough by everyone else, to justify the cost? After all, you can also be right, and sometimes that’s even harder for people to stomach. 

Few writers bear the weight of this responsibility well. I can hardly claim an impeccable record, only a lot of time spent thinking about those stakes and how I might better evaluate them. In an era when the churn of “content creation” (sigh) demands so many more stories to feed the maws of the digitally-fixated masses, though, that responsibility becomes even more urgent. Why does this story need to exist? Who is it for?

When the story is about people who would otherwise be relatively unknown, the answers to those questions should be clear and surgically precise. In Friday Night Lights, a book that made its main characters household names, they are: Because high school football is not an adequate substitute for a functioning community, and to treat it that way is harmful to almost everyone involved — and basically everyone interested in the state of America. 

I was left trying to answer those questions by another book, released more than three decades later: Kent Babb’s recent release, Across the River: Life, Death and Football in an American City (HarperOne, 2021). 

To compare Babb’s book to the prototype might seem unfair. But they are almost identical in scope, books that follow a team for a season to explore two of many examples where high school football is the drug that soothes a very sick country, whether it’s acting as a placebo or not. Across the River has even already been optioned by George Clooney’s production company, making it another likely entry in the growing filmography (“reality” and otherwise) of “football as played by poor people.”

[These are both] books that follow a team for a season to explore two of many examples where high school football is the drug that soothes a very sick country, whether it’s acting as a placebo or not.

Across the River follows the 2019 season of the Edna Karr High School Cougars as they pursue their fourth straight Louisiana state championship. The school is located in a severely under-resourced New Orleans neighborhood called Algiers, which is across the Mississippi from the more touristy parts of the city — hence the book’s title. It’s a convenient metaphor that Babb returns to throughout the book: “Across the river…is a bountiful landscape of peace, comfort and possibility,” he writes at one point. 

It’s from this premise that some of the book’s more frustrating assumptions and elisions begin. In reality, across the river from Algiers is the rest of New Orleans, which — as Babb acknowledges — is only better-resourced and less dangerous than the more isolated neighborhood in a few select pockets. Because Karr is a charter school, its students come from around the city; the overarching concept that they are across the river but socioeconomically a world away rings a little hollow.

Babb began reporting on Karr and its charismatic, deeply committed coach Brice Brown in 2018, when he wrote a feature on his mission to protect his players from gun violence for the Washington Post. I sympathized with his impulse, as someone who began reporting a piece on high school football and gun violence around the exact same time. 

The work Brown does, tirelessly looking after his players far beyond pushing them to succeed on the field, is exceptional and deserving of recognition. I believe Babb when he says Brown is “driven not by winning games or championships, but by a deep fear that someone else he loves will be cut down by gunfire” — even more so because I have spoken with coaches all over the country who feel the exact same way.

Babb’s case for writing about Karr is that it is exceptional, that Algiers is so violent and Brown’s work so unprecedented that it is worth mining his and his charges’ most painful moments to write what turned out to be a very compelling and evocative book. 

“It’s easy to pretend poverty isn’t as bad as the news media says, that no matter where you come from, a college education and career success are within easy reach as long as you pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” Babb writes in his author’s note. “I must confess here that, regardless of my curiosity and work, I had been content to pretend communities like this didn’t exist in the United States.” 

What Babb intends as an acknowledgement of his culpability instead betrays the book’s core flaw. Regardless of how well-intentioned he was in telling this story, it was only written for the people who would be surprised by it, for those for whom it is “easy to pretend.” “As hard as it may be for some of us to believe, this is an American story,” he writes. What about those of us for whom it isn’t hard to believe at all, who understand that Algiers is not an exception but a fair representation of too many American communities? After all, 37 million Americans live below the poverty line, and they also read books.

What Babb intends as an acknowledgement of his culpability instead betrays the book’s core flaw.

The ensuing story feels depressingly familiar. At the center is linebacker Joe Thomas, whose mother is incarcerated for selling drugs and whom Brown is struggling to get out of Algiers. He eventually succeeds, at least as far as the book can tell it — Thomas winds up with a scholarship to Texas Wesleyan University. They all succeed, actually, winning yet another state championship; the sole aberration is Trent Washington, a player who winds up in legal trouble midseason, and he’s long since been forgotten about by the time the confetti is thrown.

In Across The River, Babb runs up against the limits of using football as a lens for broader reporting. His narrative never fully shakes the convenience of on-field drama; since the arc is ultimately a redemptive one, ending with a title and college scholarships, it paints a system that — no matter how many caveats he adds — seems to work. 

Within that story, all the hurt that Joe Thomas and Brice Brown have endured feels like distasteful window dressing meant to make the eventual victory even bigger and more emotional. Without more context about the community and the world beyond Karr football, without a longer reporting window that might have shown what rings and scholarships can’t fix, it reads as an endorsement of the status quo. “It is, for once, about kids using the college football system to their advantage,” Babb says of the Karr kids signing letters of intent, as though the exact problem with college football hasn’t always been poor kids feeling like it’s their only option.

All over the country, people are fighting with everything they have to survive; they might get some wins on and off the field as a result, but they’ve never been enough to fix the situation. A Karr football player died in January after being shot by his former teammate. The long-term solutions, it would seem, need to come from elsewhere.

Babb tries to come around to this idea with the book’s closing, an oblique quote from Brown about how he shouldn’t insert himself in a situation because it will be “unhealthy.” But overall, the book’s argument is ambiguous — it paints a vivid, stark portrait of trauma that offers little new for anyone it doesn’t shock, with some acknowledgement of the systemic issues at play but not enough to save the narrative from trite inspiration. 

Across the River can’t resist the siren song of the mythical and the legendary, the exceptional in lieu of the messy, unglamorous average. “Nobody else is walking through that door to save the West Bank,” Babb writes of Brown, as if the rest of the staff at Edna Karr High School, social service workers in Algiers, and anyone else who cares at all about the future simply don’t exist. A more honest rendering wouldn’t need that kind of baseless bravado. 

Average Americans don’t get a shortcut or a happy ending, just the grind — and not even two-a-days are harder or more grueling than that.

And Babb can offer that kind of depiction. The book’s most moving story doesn’t have any blood, crime or drugs: instead, it explains how one of the players’ father has worked hard to give his family financial security, and supplements their barely middle-class lifestyle with the unpleasant work of hawking second-hand tickets outside the Superdome. It ends with the perfect twist on what seems like a standard American Dream-type tale of upward mobility: the revelation that his father, the player’s grandfather, has spent decades doing the exact same thing. 

In an instant, what might have been the book’s centerpiece comes into focus. Average Americans don’t get a shortcut or a happy ending, just the grind — and not even two-a-days are harder or more grueling than that.