‘Friday Night Lights’ author critiques athletic programs

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The lights glowed Thursday night as author and sports journalist Buzz Bissinger took the stage to offer critical commentary on today’s high school and college sports programs. Bissinger wrote the book “Friday Night Lights,” a precursor to the successful movie and television drama. In a talk at the AT&T Conference Center on Thursday night, he discussed the role of sports and society, specifically what he called an excessive reverence for athletics in universities and high schools. “Buzz Bissinger tries to tap into the pulse of America from many different directions, not simply sports,” said journalism professor Michael J. Cramer. “He’s a great writer and commentator on popular America.” Bissinger said athletics programs have ultimately failed the athletes, citing examples such as former Los Angeles Rams football star Marcus Dupree dropping out of college a year before ultimately joining the NFL. Bissinger said he tries to reflect these kinds of situations in the show by creating similar challenges for James Miles, one of the book’s characters, he said. One solution is to pay college athletes in exchange for their work, he said. However, the case presented by the talk is contrary to the situation at UT, said sports management professor Laurence Chalip. Although athletics programs at most universities take money from other parts of the school, UT athletics actually gives money back to academic programs, he said. “Our program helps to support academics, rather than the other way around,” Chalip said. Cramer noted the recent contract between UT and ESPN, through which the University will receive approximately $247.5 million over a contracted 20-year period. “Without athletics, we wouldn’t have deals like that,” Cramer said, who is also the director of the Texas Program in Sports and Media. Despite Bissinger’s criticisms of some athletics programs, he said sports still have a positive impact, such as providing a uniting force for people from diverse communities. “It is wonderful,” Bissinger said. “It is that moment in time when anger fades away, when racism fades away, when it doesn’t matter that you are black or you are white, if you are brown, if you are green, if you are a man, if you are a woman — you all for those two hours come together and watch.” As for UT, we can already see the impact sports has on the academic community in Austin, beneath the backlash against collegiate sports, Cramer said. Bissinger, however, said an overemphasis on athletics can detract from other programs and educational experiences. “There is nothing quite like Friday night lights until they inevitably end,” Bissinger said.