Last week, Junior Seau’s death became the latest tragedy to test America’s already-tortured love for football. The NFL star’s apparent suicide revived concerns about a game built, seemingly, on debilitating violence and trauma.
Pulitzer prize-winning journalist H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger knows all about conflicted allegiance to a beautiful, terrible sport. Having grown up watching football, he made his name exposing its underside, with the 1988 best-seller Friday Night Lights. These days he continues to decipher the game’s glories and call out its flaws as a columnist for the Daily Beast.
Bissinger admits to the thrill of watching professional football players collide like trucks in a pile-up, but he hates the sport’s centrality on college campuses. “Football,” he says, “is antithetical to the academic experience.” That, more so even than the risk of brain damage, is why he’ll argue alongside Malcolm Gladwell that college football should be banned at the Slate/Intelligence Squared live debate in New York City on May 8. Former NFL defensive end Tim Green and Fox Sports writer Jason Whitlock will contest the motion.
If debates were football games, Bissinger would be a formidable draft pick. He can toss off facts and research in effortless verbal spirals, and he burns with white-hot anger. (Ask Bissinger whether student athletes should be paid and get ready for an earful.) But his belief that bone-crushing brutality belongs in pro football—and that the NFL should abandon its efforts to make the sport safer—might weaken his case for banning the college game, forcing him to rely on more tenuous reasons than concussions for why football harms student life.
Bissinger’s fifth book, Father’s Day: A Journey into the Mind and Heart of My Extraordinary Son, comes out in May.
Slate: What was the intention behind Friday Night Lights?
Bissinger: It’s the opposite of a love letter to the game—a cautionary tale. Friday Night Lights is what happens when a town becomes completely obsessed with football and takes it to a dangerous extreme.
The book’s about high school kids being sacrificed in the name of winning football games in Texas, of trying to win a state championship. No regard was given to their future. The whole attitude of the town was, “This is your future.” And, in effect, the kids’ lives were over at 18. Many did not go on to college. They were discouraged from taking the SATs on a Saturday because it conflicted with watching footage of the previous night’s game. And there was hideous racism directed at a black player who got injured. He became totally dispensable: He was called a “big, dumb old nigger” by one of the assistant coaches.
Slate: What do you make of the TV series? It seems to romanticize football a bit more.
Bissinger: The show was inspired by the book, but it bears virtually no relationship to it. The movie’s closer.
Slate: Could you walk me through the history of your relationship with football? Were you a fan before you started writing Friday Night Lights?
Bissinger: I was a big football fan growing up in New York City. I got season tickets to the New York Giants and the New York Jets. My father went to Dartmouth, back when the Ivy League played really good football. We went to a lot of games. I remember, one weekend, we actually saw three. We went up to Cambridge to see Dartmouth-Harvard, and then came back to LaGuardia. Ate at LaGuardia. Went to the Jets game that night. Then, the next day, we went to the Sunday Giants game.
Slate: What changed your mind? What made you want to tell a “cautionary tale” about football?
Bissinger: The idea for the book emanated from a trip I took out West. In the midst of downtown suburbs that were being obliterated, I saw all these beautiful high school football stadiums. They were painted and well maintained. It was clear to me that these weren’t simply stadiums: They were shrines to hold small-town people’s hopes and dreams on a Friday night. And I found the right town to write about, which was Odessa, in West Texas—about 300 miles from anything and everything. Once I got into the book, I just discovered a very dark side to football. The games themselves were wonderful and exciting, but the pressure and the emphasis was beyond all extremes.
Slate: Your debate partner, Malcolm Gladwell, raised the possibility that it might be unethical to watch NFL games. What do you think?
Bissinger: I don’t think it’s unethical to watch NFL games. I watch them. I think we have to make a decision. Either we accept football for what it is, which is a brutally violent game, or we ban it.
I don’t know how you’re going to put a halt to injuries. You can try all you want to prevent concussions, but you’re not going to be able to do it. We love hits. No one wants to admit this, but we like it when players get knocked out. It’s why we go. It’s bloodlust: The modern Roman Coliseum.
Personally, I like that aspect of the game, the brutal violence, as long as it’s legal. Would I let my kid play? No. Do I think anyone should let their kid play? No. Particularly not at a youth level, where the kids’ brains are unformed and much more susceptible to serious concussions. Plus, I saw what happened in Odessa.
But attempts to reform football will just dilute the game until it’s no longer recognizable. There’s only so much you can do with the equipment. True, we’re not going back to the days of people wearing leather caps, when a lot of players got killed, but these guys are instinctively trained, since the age of 9 or 10, to maim. They want to hurt players. They want to intimidate. That’s part of the game. Yes, the concussion rules in effect are much better than they were. But even if you don’t get concussions, you’re going to have terrible arthritis. A lot of players can’t walk. They can’t move their hands. It’s brutal. Still, every player that has been interviewed says he would not trade it for anything. All this is endemic to the game and it’s what makes the game special. If there is great concern about the medical repercussions, which I understand, then get rid of football.