Friday Night Lights (2004)

Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V- 4; L-3 ; S/N-1

Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun. Even those who live many years should rejoice in them all; yet let them remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity. Rejoice, young man, while you are young, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth.
Ecclesiastes 11:7-9

What use is an idol once its maker has shaped it— a cast image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in what has been made, though the product is only an idol that cannot speak! Alas for you who say to the wood, “Wake up!” to silent stone, “Rouse yourself!” Can it teach? See, it is gold and silver plated, and there is no breath in it at all. But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!
Habakkuk 2:18-19

Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.
1 Cor. 9:24-27

Friday Night Lights

The straight road seems to go on endlessly as it cuts through the brown, dusty plains of western Texas—an opening shot that we see repeated several times in this story of boys and men who slavishly endure the joys and the agonies of Friday night high school football. The 20,000 seat stadium that the Odessa taxpayers have built for their Permian Panthers is a showy display of where the hearts and minds of the citizenry resides—as much in that temple of competition as in their less than impressive church buildings.

If idolatry, as the Hebrew prophets saw it, consists of anything that stands between us and the true God, then football surely is it. From the many scenes, so wonderfully played out in the film, we can understand why the people, adults and youth, willingly submit to its sway. Football for a few brief hours on Friday nights enables players and spectators to escape from the mind-numbing lives that most of the citizens of Odessa endure. A very few students might earn a college scholarship if they play well, thus escaping from the town—and all, in the stands and on the field, enjoy the reflected glory of a win, or share in the agony of defeat. Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton in one of his finest performances of his distinguished career) even sees his players as defenders of their town, urging them to do their utmost in the game so that all of Texas will know of and respect Odessa.

The players are regarded as demigods, especially Boobie Miles (Derek Luke) the cocky running back certain that he has a future in college & pro football, tells reporters he is making A’s—in football. Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) loves to party, and often is approached by older townsmen who ask to have their picture taken with him. The pressure on the players is greater than any young men ever should have to undergo. Don’s abusive father Charlie Billingsley (country singer Tim McGraw) still wears his championship ring won when he when he was a member of the state championship team. He taunts, and even beats, his son when the boy drops a pass, causing the team to lose a game. When he is injured Boobie Miles is under even greater pressure, though not from his coach, who is genuinely interested in the boy’s health—should he go against his doctor’s advice and play, even though his knee is still weak? If he tells Coach Gaines the truth and sits out the game, he will lose his opportunity to perform in front of the scout who will be attending the game.

Coach Gaines also is always under intense pressure, especially when his team loses several early season games. After a game the grandstand quarter backers fill the airwaves on the local call-in talk show with criticisms of his decisions and style. People stop the coach and his family on the street with supposed compliments and advice, which his wife and young daughter understand are actually veiled threats to the coach’s job. Thus the great god Football exacts a heavy price for worshipping at its shrine. Peter Berg’s non-judgmental film (co-written with David Aaron Cohen and based on the book by H.G. Bissinger, Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team and a Dream) conducts us into the lives of a number of young and old small town Texans, enabling us to see to what great lengths people will go in order to find some measure of transcendence, some measure of hope in a bleak world which offers its young so little to look forward to. This is a wonderful film for a youth group to see and discuss, with or without their parents (there are some important parental issues dealt with). It’s probably the best football film that deals with far more than just a sport since Any Given Sunday or North Dallas Forty.

For Reflection/Discussion

1) With which character do you identify? What are his dreams, hopes, plans? Are they realistic? How does Football, like all idols, deliver, or let down, its devotees?

2) Football is largely a male world: where do women fit in? Do we learn any of their hopes and dreams?

3) As we hear during one of the radio broadcasts, not every citizen buys into football religion. What do you think of the caller’s criticism that the coach earns more than the school principal? How do you think the school’s spending on sports, football in particular, compares with that spent on more intellectual activities—say the debate team, the drama department? How do you think the music department is probably organized—around football, or classical/pop music?

4) Compare the outlook of the author of Ecclesiastes with that of the despairing Boobie when, after his medical tests, he sits on his porch steps, watches the black workers collect the garbage, and observes, “All I can do is football. All that practice!” 5) What do you think of Charley Billingsley’s telling his son Don, the morning after in his rage he has kicked out the car window, “This is all you’re going to have. One stinking year!” 6) What do you think of Coach Billingsley’s remarks at the crucial game that this “is not about the score board”? What is his conception of “perfection”? How does his emphasis upon relationships indicate that his heart and values are in the right place? Has he always been able to live up to his ideals, to go beyond “winning is the only thing” set of values?

7) How is preparing themselves spiritually by reciting together the Lord’s Prayer, rather than a chaplain’s prayer, a good practice? Do you think this helps avoid an attempt to line up God on the team’s side? What phrases in the Prayer support this?

8) From what you have seen in the film, how is football both a good thing for the town? An endangerment to the spiritual welfare of the participants? Were you a church leader in the town what might you say or do to bring about a balance between the good and the bad of the sport?