Over the next little while, I’m going to be posting up a few of the articles that I have previously written for the website Lovely Left Foot, which is currently undergoing a hiatus of sorts. They may eventually be hosted on LLF again someday, but for now I felt that they were good enough examples of my writing that they should be up somewhere.
The original publication date for this piece was October 27th 2012.
You might be aware of the H.G Bissinger book Friday Night Lights, which spawned both a movie and a TV series, about a high school American Football team from the small Texas town of Odessa called the Permian Panthers. The book has become one of the most highly regarded in the genre of sports journalism, an explosive expose of the dark side of gridiron football and the conservative nature of the American south.
It’s easy to look at American Football, the NFL and Friday Night Lights as examples of an extreme but unique sporting culture, which can be safely judged by those on the other side of the pond. I have occasionally found that viewpoint being expressed by some. After all, in our code of association football, we don’t have high profile players running dog fighting rings, teams under scrutiny for running “bounty” systems of rewards for injuring opposing players, or paedophilia being covered up to try and maintain a college football program (or at least, I sincerely hope so).
But there are three main issues that caught my eye in reading Friday Night Lights that are problems over here, in England, in Ireland, on the continent. Through the reading of Friday Night Lights, the solutions that it offers, we can find an interesting “compare and contrast” with the situation of football here. While I read this book, I found myself becoming more and more shocked about what went on in this sports program, until I realised that such pitfalls and problems occur right here. As such, my discussion of those three problems should not be seen as a direct correlation between Friday Night Lights and association football, but more an inspiration based on that book that prompted me to write the following.
The first is a generally poor system of youth coaching and management. In Friday Night Lights, the young men on the Permian Panthers team are drilled from a very young age into thinking that the only thing worth doing in life is playing football, that in so doing they can find themselves outside the rules of behaviour expected of most people, while all the while next to nothing is done to effectively make them ready for any kind of life beyond the sport.
There are many problems with youth set-ups in the British Isles that match or outdo these. Speaking expressly on my own country, Ireland has done a mediocre job of encouraging the proper methods and evolution of coaching for young players, resulting in a loosely managed system that is frequently abused.
As some of those who spend much of their time engaged with that system might tell you, the youth of football, right down to the youngest levels, are treated with a lack of empathy and humanity that is shocking. Children as young as six are written off as no-hopers if they do not show the required talent (or are unlucky enough to be on a team that does not gain immediate success), it is next to impossible to keep such underage teams together due to the frequent practice of poaching, and everything is based around getting a young person into a position where they can be sent abroad, usually to clubs in England. That is the sole motivating factor for many agents and underage coaches, to the detriment of the actual player’s prospects.
It is this migratory process and everything that comes before it that is often used as the prime reason for the poor state of the Irish domestic league and the Irish national team, as the FAI has done a criminally poor job of investing in its own league structures and youth development, or doing anything to stop the encouraged exodus of young talent to clubs across the water. If the Permian Panthers are drilled from a young age into focusing on high school football and nothing else, young Irish soccer players are drilled to look to England, where the real money and opportunities lie. I am certain this is the same in other places.
But football also has a general problem connected to that, of heaping too much reward and then too much expectation on the shoulders of very young players. It is more and more the case in today’s world that footballers are expected to become megastars by age 17/18, for which they receive absolutely gigantic amounts of money while suddenly representing their club in Europe or countries on the biggest stage. This kind of expectation/pressure has become a surprisingly accepted part of the game.
What we rarely see commented upon are those who don’t make it, who have failed to achieve the requisite amount of promotion or scrambling up the ladder of club levels. Those men and women, often leaving behind their entire lives at home, are cast off when they show no sign of being an asset past the teens. The Irish domestic leagues are littered with players who travelled to England, failed to make it and came home to eke out a relatively meagre living, often part-time. Like the Permian High players after they graduate, they are resigned to the doldrums of a life outside stardom they have had little preparation for.
The solution to this problem, as the Permian High School took, was to decrease the insane level of attention and support the football program got, moving resources back into neglected academic areas. Over here in Ireland and elsewhere, a similar solution can be applied in many ways, whether it is the creation of legitimate football academies or tie-ins to decent educational programs, that can let an aspiring player create a fallback position for when (and it is depressingly a case more often of when and not if) the footballing dream disappears or bottoms out.
The second problem was the negative aspects of the Permian’s High Schools gigantic, fanatic, support base. We can well pass scorn on the altogether too gung-ho support that the high school team gets in Friday Night Lights – which equated to threats to both the team and team manager when they lost, abusive behaviour at matches, etc.
But we should remember that there are far too many people in England and Ireland who take our game too seriously, and let that fanatic support express itself in a very negative fashion. Over here in Ireland, just down the road from me in fact, a father invaded the pitch during a game of Gaelic football to attack a player who had been involved in an altercation with his son.
Just the other week, a number of players rushed the field during a Championship game and attacked the Sheffield Wednesday keeper, Chris Kirkland. We’ve had numerous incidences of objects being thrown at players and officials from stands (including a grenade), flares set off in games. Go onto Twitter after any moderately high profile game and watch the abuse and occasional threats ring out.
After the publication of Friday Night Lights, the town of Odessa did not drop its love for gridiron, but other sports were allowed to take root in the school system and the negative attention brought on the football program perhaps helped to douse some of the overly-aggressive support.
Over here, such a solution is already in place, to an extent. There are plenty of sports (with better behaved fanbases) that look good in comparison and negative attention on the hooligan element is plain to see. In terms of additional solutions though, you just need to lay down harsh punishments and then enforce them. Not years of bans, lifetimes. Prosecutions, not leniency. The aforementioned pitch invader will be allowed back in stadiums in Ireland within two years. Not association football of course, but is just an example of how forgiving we in the Atlantic Archipelago can be when it comes to this kind of behaviour. Maybe we shouldn’t be.
The last problem, perhaps the most series one addressed in Bissinger’s book, is racism. In the town of Odessa, racist thinking, language and opinions are the norm, to a startlingly casual extent, effecting severely the relationship between black and white communities.
Racism in association football is getting a wide amount of coverage today. In my own personal opinion, it isn’t as bad as the ingrained, almost accepted racial stereotyping in the Odessa and Permian High of Friday Night Lights, but it does exist and the spotlight on it has illuminated a very ugly aspect of our game.
It’s far more than Rio Ferdinand refusing to wear a t-shirt. It’s the taunting of black players, it’s the lenient punishments handed out to perpetrators, it’s the mindset of some fans who rally around those perpetrators regardless of all evidence.
But it’s also the way those in charge of our game respond to it, which has been extraordinarily dismissive. Sepp Blatter tells people to shake hands and forget about it. Repeat offenders like the Serbian FA get the most meaningless of fines, then ban their offenders for two years – but only for internationals. I think association football can look down on the way people in Odessa, act, but not from too high. We have our own culture of racism here, which the leaders of the sport are failing to tackle to the utmost.
It fell outside the remit of Friday Night Lights and Bissinger to talk about how a high school football team could end the most entrenched kind of racism. The racism in that team was simple result of the racism in society at large. The same goes over here. There are things that FIFA and the FA can do better in terms of punishment and simple PR, but in the end the issue if tackling racism in society is one that has to be done on a grander scale than on just a football pitch. But that does not mean that we are excused from responsibility.
Permian High and their extreme brand of sports culture cannot be compared too directly with our own, but it cannot be denied that many of the issues raised in Friday Night Lights can also be seen in association football. Odessa has implemented some solutions with mixed results. Some problems remains outside of their power to fix.
They vary from place to place, league to league, level to level, but the problems in association football are there as well. Like Odessa, the leaders, clubs and fanbases of association football need to acknowledge and commit to tackling our own problems and to aid in the solution of those that need a greater collaboration to fix.