A Texas town’s obsession with high school football puts players in a pressure cooker. Based on a true story.
It’s a Friday night in September, 1988. The stores are all closed. The streets are quiet. Everyone in Odessa, Texas, has gathered to worship. But not at church. Rather, they’ve congregated at the local high school’s football field where 20,000 screaming fans chant “MO-JO” in support of their beloved Permian Panthers, a team expected to roll across the Lone Star State like a tumbleweed in a stiff wind on its way to the state championship. Anything less would be considered a tragic disappointment.
One reason the small town demands success is that it has tasted it before. Also, running back Boobie Miles has superstar written all over him (and knows it), and looks to carry the team on his back. But when Boobie goes down with a season-ending injury early in the campaign, Coach Gaines must patch together a winner out of spare parts while requiring more offensive production from Mike, his hard-working but only modestly talented quarterback. How far can this team go? And what physical, mental and emotional condition will it be in when it gets there?
Once the film hits stride, its point becomes clear that putting too much emphasis on football is unhealthy for everyone involved. Coach Gaines and his players listen to hurtful, often unfair comments on a radio call-in show, illustrating what the Bible says about the kinds of things that come out of fools' mouths (Prov. 15:2) and the power and sting of unkind words (Prov. 26:21). Coach assures his boys, “Ain’t much difference between winning and losing except how the outside world treats you. ... We can dig our own holes.” He also preaches teamwork and expresses pride in his players and staff.
Running back Don Billingsly’s verbally and physically abusive father is vilified. (A touching moment late in the film suggests that the dad is truly sorry for his attitude and is changing his stripes.) Before that happens, Don shows an admirable level of self-control in situations where others might have lashed back. Coach tells Mike to take initiative and improve his situation when life gives him “the short end of the stick.” Mike is devoted to his ailing mother.
Off the field Coach is even-keeled, taking the criticism and pressure in stride. Midway through the big game, he informs his players that his admonishment that they “be perfect” has nothing to do with how the scoreboard looks when the gun sounds, and everything to do with character and relationships (“To me, being perfect is not about ... winning. It’s about you and your relationship to yourself, your family and your friends”). He proceeds to talk about integrity, honesty and joy, preparing them for the inevitable backlash from a community that puts winning ahead of those virtues.
Elsewhere, a young man is humbled by tragedy. And although it’s disturbing to watch older characters struggling with racial prejudice, it’s nice to see that the younger ones—white and African American alike—don’t make an issue of skin color at all.
In the locker room, the Panthers join hands and recite the entire Lord’s Prayer before returning for the second half of the big game (as does the opposing team). Boobie claims his talent is “God-given,” and calls a player whose last name is Christian “preacher man.” The losing team gathers for prayer. People raise their glasses for a toast that evolves into a blessing.
The Billingsley boy urges his teammates to embark on a night of debauchery (“We’re gonna get drunk and laid”). Later on, he and a girl stumble into his house, kissing and undressing each other as they fall onto the couch. She is shirtless (her arms cover her breasts) when Don’s father—showing no moral concern—interrupts them. Students are shown making out at a party. A football groupie approaches Mike and implies she wants to have sex with him. When he declines, she accuses him of being gay. To prove he isn’t, Mike agrees to be intimate with her. (Both are shown dressing after the fact; the girl is seen in her underwear.)
Crushing tackles, blindside blows and after-the-whistle cheap shots show just how violent the game of football can be. We glimpse players bloodied from combat. Tempers flare on the practice field and teammates mix it up until coaches step in. When their momentum takes them out of bounds, athletes mow down a bystander and a cheerleader. A boy’s dislocated shoulder gets popped back into place. A gruesome tackle destroys Boobie’s knee. He throws a tantrum when a doctor says he shouldn’t play, then returns to action prematurely and incurs even more damage. Prone to fumbling, Don gets berated and thrown to the ground by his dad, who later humiliates the boy by angrily duct-taping a ball to his hands. The dad talks about being beaten by his own father, and kicks out the rear windows of a car he’s riding in.
Crude or Profane Language
More than 40 profanities, including eight s-words, a barely obscured f-word and an exclamatory use of Jesus’ name. God’s name is misused in conjunction with “d--n” nearly 10 times. A white woman refers to a black player as a "n-gger."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Adults drink wine at dinner. An ill woman takes prescription medication. But the real problem is teen drinking, which includes a wild party, binge drinking and a beer bong. A guy invites players to a party with the lure, “We’re gonna get wasted!” Don’s boozing dad is often drunk, which contributes to his abusiveness.
Other Negative Elements
Several remarks leave the impression that a person’s high school years are the best life has to offer, and that teens should let it all hang out in order to create memories without regard for morality and common sense. Mike’s mother seems less concerned with his well-being than his ability to keep playing when he takes a pounding.
Friday Night Lights is based on a real community embroiled in an actual football season. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist H.G. Bissinger’s compelling, disturbing and controversial book of the same title follows the ups and downs of Odessa’s unhealthy obsession with high school football. But while this small West Texas town may come across as a whipping boy, it’s merely emblematic of a more widespread problem. The truth is, many communities have been morally blinded by those same Friday night lights, turning football into a religion, and anointing high school kids as gods. If the film shocks those people into reordering their priorities and cutting their local athletic program some slack, it will serve a purpose.
However, some young people will internalize the message that they should turn their senior year into an excuse to party and sleep around because, after all “it’s all downhill from there.” For those viewers, the movie will do far more harm than good. A former state champ tells his son, “You’ve got one stinking year to make yourself some memories, and it’ll be gone after that.” A tragic thought. Teens need to know that high school is just a station of life, not the destination. And irresponsible choices can ripple far into their future. While Coach Gaines’ halftime speech preaches honesty, integrity, joy and community, it remains to be seen which ideals will stick with audiences.