But what it unveiled was not laudatory. Instead, author Buzz Bissinger revealed a culture with upside-down priorities steeped in social unease and wrapped in racial tensions, particularly in the largely White Permian football community, which viewed and used the few Black boys among it as necessary and dispensable.
Permian people were so agitated by “Friday Night Lights” that some threatened Bissinger with bodily harm. After all, they were small-town folk suddenly exposed as scurrilous to the nation in what became a bestseller, a TV series and a feature film starring Billy Bob Thornton as Permian Coach Gary Gaines.
I was reminded of that Thursday when an audio file from a source fell unsolicited into my email inbox, capturing a virtual meeting of SEC athletic officials, members of the conference’s medical advisory board and a few of its football players. The officials, including those from the league’s all-White 14-person task force, were attempting to assuage the fears of the mostly Black football players over practicing and playing during this deadly pandemic.
It all recalled a “Friday Night Lights” moment dramatized by Thornton in which the coach confides to a financial booster of the team that he is concerned about how much to use his star running back, a Black kid named Boobie Miles, in the rivalry against Lee.
“You should play Boobie Miles on defense,” the woman says. “Work him both ways.”
“The problem with that,” says Thornton as coach, “is I don’t want to get him hurt. We need him to score touchdowns.”
“Bulls---,” the woman says matter-of-factly. “That big n----- ain’t gonna break.”
None of the adults in the SEC meeting said so uncivilly what that booster urged in “Friday Night Lights.” But they intimated no less, suggesting that the health and welfare of players both Black and White are less important than the bottom line.
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey’s answer when asked whether it is worth it to play football under these uncertain health conditions: “I think the good news is we’ve all adapted, you’ve adapted, your teammates have adapted — not perfectly, but to be healthy, to reduce the positive, to really eliminate the positives.
“I think the great line in life is, ‘Nothing is guaranteed.’ We feel that way a little bit more right now. But part of our work is to bring as much certainty in the midst of this really strange time as we can so you can play football in the most healthy way possible — with the understanding there aren’t any guarantees in life. We’re going to work on making it the best possible opportunity that we’re able to do it in the Southeastern Conference, which is … part of why you came here, right?”
It is safe to say that there isn’t one football player in the SEC, or elsewhere in college football, who ever thought he would have to consider whether to play football amid a global pandemic that has infected more than 4.5 million people in this country and killed more than 150,000. But the SEC all but explicitly told its players, most of whom are Black, that they won’t break.
What are the lasting effects of the virus if you catch it, someone asked. We don’t know, a sports medicine physician from the University of Mississippi essentially said. But we’ll check your heart.
What about that potential blood clotting side effect? Eh, it doesn’t seem to be chronic.
Suggested another doctor advising the athletes: You’re young and in great shape. If you do catch the virus, it’ll bounce off you like a bad cold or a bout with the flu.
The SEC isn’t alone in its callous desire to play football. The adults, mostly White, who run the other Power Five college athletic conferences — which pulled in almost $3 billion in revenue last season, mostly off the backs of Boobie Mileses — echoed either audibly or tacitly what we caught the SEC pitching. Don’t worry. Be happy. Football will be all right.
And on Sunday morning, an email arrived in my inbox from Pac-12 players about the “College Football Player Opt-Out Movement,” further illustrating the angst on the part of kids being told to jump. In a piece written for the Players’ Tribune, the Pac-12 players declared they won’t practice or play their sport in this pandemic under a hodgepodge of recommendations from adults with which the players are uncomfortable.
“We believe a football season under these conditions would be reckless and put us at needless risk,” they wrote.
Give them an A in Racialized Labor Exploitation 101. Of the 12 players listed as representatives for the conference’s schools, nine are Black.
LSU players complained about the face shields they were given to protect them from the virus on the field, with linebacker Soni Fonua saying, “I can’t f------ breathe under this thing,” perhaps unintentionally referencing the rallying cry from nationwide protests against police violence.
This college football season isn’t about competition. It isn’t about rankings or all-Americans.
It’s about social justice. It’s about racial justice.
The pandemic has laid bare an unethical and immoral structure in which a cabal of adults is forcing someone else’s kids to further risk their health, this time with a deadly virus floating invisibly in the air, to keep standing a financial system that is largely beneficial only to the adults who run it as they do so mostly without regarding the concerns of those kids.
“There is no better example of NCAA sports’ racial exploitation,” Ramogi Huma, executive director of the would-be college athlete union, the National College Players Association, said last week, “than colleges marching their football players into the covid-19 pandemic without the enforcement of any health and safety standards in pursuit of football revenue that players themselves will never see.”
Boobie Mileses aren’t just entertainers. They are human beings. And they are at a breaking point.