This was a big week for honest looks at the national obsession that is high school football. It's the premiere of the final season of the best non-cable show ever, Friday Night Lights (airing first on Direct TV's 101 then later in the season on NBC).
And the LA Times has published an enthralling series on the dark-and-dangerous underbelly of the sport that spawns all that school spirit.
First, the good part. Friday Night Lights is a joy on a million levels. You need to go back to Netflix (it's on instant, not just DVD) and watch it from the beginning. You should watch it if you love football, you should watch it if you hate football, and if you're on the fence like me, you should watch it all twice, and go back and read the book it was based on.
I was convinced to watch by a friend who previously couldn't have told you the shape of the ball or how many points for a touchdown, and I'll never be able to repay her for turning me on to it.
I've got loads of gripes: There's not a single character who remotely looks young enough to be in high school. And they get some of the football details wrong (this is coming from a nitpicky coach's son, most of you won't notice). But that stuff is easily overcome.
The family at the center, the Taylors, will function as both your marriage counselors and parenting advisers. There's reality to their problems but you also believe their happiness and it's damn inspirational.
Though Esquire's Sexiest Woman Alive and Derek Jeter-lover Minka Kelly is gone, and the even prettier manwhore-with-a-heart-of-gold Taylor Kitsch will have a reduced role since he's in jail (honorably taking the fall for his brother, sigh ...), the new characters they've brought on, some of them culled from The Wire, are just as compelling and look a little more like teenagers.
Even if you come to it hating football, you'll find yourself helplessly cheering and tearing up at the team's chant of "Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose!" (I'm getting misty right now just typing it.) But it doesn't back away a bit from the dark side of the game -- the drugs, the academic scandals, the very real physical dangers.
The real genius of Friday Night Lights is that it looks at football with all its flaws and makes you like it anyway.
The pieces in the LA Times have been equally moving. They include the story of Brad Ebner, who takes classes with 18- to-22-year-olds that need to be taught basic life skills. But unlike his classmates born with disabilities, he was just playing the wrong game at the wrong time:
Everyone else has been afflicted since birth. Ebner, 21, is the exception. He was playing football for Dos Pueblos High four years ago when he suffered a head injury that nearly killed him. The trauma to Ebner's brain left him unable to focus on simple tasks and with excessive impulsive behavior.
Terrible accidents can happen anywhere to anyone, so I don't want to make too much of football's evils, as I've done before.
But can there be any doubt that if this were some newly invented game, and someone proposed our schools embrace it and celebrate it and encourage students to participate, they wouldn't be laughed at? We wouldn't accept it in a million years.
I've come to accept my love/hate though. I think of it like gambling or liquor or other vices. Something that shouldn't be outlawed, that has its pleasures, but needs to be heavily regulated and closely watched. And that someday we may just have to quit.
Are you a Friday Night Lights fan?
Image via Flickr/JayelAheram