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Richard Lutz’s Blog

NOT SO SUPERBOWL

05-02-2010

Super Bowl

Richard Lutz gets ready for the Super Bowl despite hating the system that gave it birth.

Across the Atlantic, where a chill wind from Chilcot doesn’t blow and where Obama wrestles with the legacy of George Bush, it’s the starting point for Super Bowl week end.

It can be dismissed, ignored, belittled. But it is there. Half of the States downs tools and watches two football teams clash on Sunday night (early Monday morning to us here).

The Super Bowl is the crowning point in a sports culture that has to be experienced to be believed. And no better is it illustrated than in a magnificent book called Friday Night Lights by HG Bissinger, which portrays the pressure athletic teenagers are under in school to succeed.

The author spent a year in a depressed oil town in Texas called Odessa. Its football team is a powerhouse with a 20,000 seat stadium, the use of Lear jets to go to away games and a town that lives, breathes and dies according to the first team’s won/lost record It’s ruthless. When the Odessa coach is heading to the Texan state championships with a 7-2 record, the local paper calls for his sacking. It just isn’t good enough.

The teenaged players are pursued from the age of 14 and run to peak physical condition. But if a tendon snaps, an elbow sprained or even a brain questions the relentless pursuit of sports achievement, he is benched, forgotten.

And that’s where the problem starts.

For this kid - and usually he is a poor black kid from the wrong side of the unofficially segregated tracks - is let loose from the high school team with crushed dreams of a college scholarship based on his football skills and possibly a crack at the Olympian heights of pro football (and, who knows, maybe the Super Bowl). He is just a student in a school.

And because his only use is as an athlete he has been ignored as someone who might have something to learn. He is left in remedial classes and he can’t spell his name, add 2+2 or tell you where London is, no less New York.

It is a towering indictment of America. Bissinger tells how one school in a Texan town called Midland tried to install a minimum scholastic record. If you fell below 70% in your grades, you couldn’t play ball, which meant the hungry pack of college scouts wouldn’t see you.

One maths teacher failed a star running back. The principal (head teacher) questioned the mark. The teacher held his ground.

The principal grabbed the failed paper. He re-marked it and passed the star. The maths teacher appealed.

The maths teacher was sacked. He got in the way of football.

The author shows this wickedly warped pursuit of sports success and how it undermines the US education system of many schools (and universities) in the US.

The ones who are stars and aren’t injured, may get a fabulous scholarship to top universities such as Yale, Harvard or Stanford. Others are picked to places they can’t even find on a map. Their courses are mere shams. They’re constructed to allow athletes to train. The young men are professional athletes in an academic setting.

The university reward is a huge gate at home games and high profile coverage on tv.

A handful of these football mega-stars who stay the course are picked in professional drafts after they either finish their degrees or drop out. And on Sunday night, you can see the ones who succeeded, weren’t culled, injured, academically drowned at the age of 14 or let down by a cruel system that breeds success at the cost of an education.

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