‘Friday Night Lights’ turns 30: Revisiting race relations in Odessa

Gaven Norris had a moment to himself after lunch on June 3rd, just before leading a thousand protestors on a march through downtown Odessa, Texas.

He thought about his grandfather, Reverend Curtis Norris, the man who raised him. The community’s leading Black activist in the 1970s, the elder Norris worked with Martin Luther King Jr. to integrate hotels in Arizona before reopening the House of Prayer Baptist Church in 1977 on the south side of this conservative, white-dominated oil town in west Texas.

Norris wondered if, in this moment in 2020, he was making his grandfather proud.

A headshot of Gaven Norris in college (2007-2011), a black man wearing a dark suit jacket and a bow tie with a button up shirt
“I feel like we’re still fighting the same fight today that they were fighting back then,” said Gaven Norris, who graduated from Permian High School in 2003. | Photo courtesy of The Archer Center

After lunch, Norris stood before the crowd, delivering a speech in front of Odessa City Hall before they marched to the police station. He wore a black t-shirt with white print that read “Black Lawyers Matter,” and removed his black face mask to remind the community that this was a peaceful march.

“We understand that everybody that marches here today is not for us,” Norris said. “If we stick together, we will not allow them to hijack this moment. … We are Odessans, this is our city, we live here and we won’t let anyone here or outside of here mess with where we live.”

The city those Odessans call home provided the basis for the storied book, “Friday Night Lights,” which celebrated its 30th anniversary this fall.

And while the phrase “Friday Night Lights” now rolls off the tongues of Texans in reference to towns that rally behind their football teams each week, they forget that the book was a sociological examination of Odessa’s systemic racism.

“This whole generation actually knows very little about the book,” said “Friday Night Lights” author Buzz Bissinger in an interview last year. “The movie subsumes everything and [the people of Odessa] really did like the film because there was really no depiction of racism.”

He thinks the book has enduring lessons for Odessa, which hid discriminatory practices behind the facade of Permian High School’s 1980s football dominance.“What happens when a town like Odessa gets completely carried away by football and loses all sight of what’s important?,” he said

In the 30 years since the book was published and despite Bissinger’s searing critique of Odessa’s racism, the city has clung to the Permian mythos amid a long-running state title drought and struggled in its attempts to improve race relations.

The city’s segregation has continued to drive persistent overcrowding at its two high schools, limited diverse leadership in the city, and perpetuated an athletics-above-all mentality. Odessa’s school district continues to funnel Black student-athletes to Permian in lopsided numbers, all while over-disciplining them and curtailing their short- and long-term futures.

That’s why Norris and others marched this summer, during a reawakened conversation on systemic and overt racism.“I feel like we’re still fighting the same fight today that they were fighting back then,” Norris said.

For years, Norris has been a mentor to Black students, whether through his work with the “In Defense of Black Lives” activist group, during his time as a teacher at Permian, or as a lawyer who represents student-athletes.

Growing up, he moved around Texas with his mother, who has bipolar disorder, and his two siblings, eventually coming into the care of his grandparents in Odessa.

Football offered an escape from his troubled home life and a way out through a college scholarship, since his grandparents couldn’t afford tuition. And Norris knew where he wanted to play high school football: at Permian, with the rest of the Black kids.

As a middle schooler, he could have walked to Ector Junior High on the south side of Odessa, a feeder to Odessa High. Instead he registered under his mother’s address and went to Nimitz Middle School, the pipeline to Permian.

Once at his high school of choice, he was miles from home without a car, and thus regularly became the last stop on what he and his peers called “the athletic bus.” After football practice each night, it wound its way from Odessa’s northeast to its south side, where many of the school’s Black student-athletes lived.

As an adult, Norris can see with more clarity, especially through his legal work with student-athletes, what he didn’t fully realize back then. The impacts of old district lines, which zoned kids to Permian and Odessa High School in the 1980s, have remained largely unchanged.

Bissinger addressed these lines in the “Black and White” chapter of “Friday Night Lights,” writing that “members of the white community suddenly began to see enormous value in some of its black students. It had nothing to do with academic potential. It had everything to do with athletic potential.”

The outside of Permian high school,  a wide, square building with columns at the front entrance, where a middle aged man is walking into the building, and a flagpole in front
Permian, one of Odessa’s two high schools, is hundreds of students over its capacity | Photo by Joshua Skinner/Medill

In 1982, federal court-ordered desegregation led to the closure of Ector High School, on Odessa’s south side, with its students redistributed to Permian and Odessa High.

The pain of Ector’s dissolution for the south side was described in the book by Curtis Norris, who died in 2006, as “our last stand that we have as a community.” Bissinger noted it had 9 white students in a population of 770 when it closed. Nearly 40 percent of the student body was Black and the rest was Hispanic.

“I felt that I was a product of Ector and I believe that I’m in a leadership role, partly because of the things that I learned at Ector,” current Odessa city councilor and Ector graduate Mari Willis said. “It just felt like another [thing] taken away from us.”

Ector’s loss was Permian’s gain. Vickie Gomez, who became the first person of color on the city’s school board in 1976, told Bissinger in “Friday Night Lights” that Permian’s desegregation “was gerrymandering over football.” Black athletes that would have gone to the former Ector High were now playing at Permian.“[The school board] spent more time talking about the athletic program than the curriculum,” she said at the time.

Look at the schools’ sports rosters today, Norris says, and you’ll see more Black athletes at Permian than at Odessa High. A state report on the district’s student population in the 2018-19 school year found that 64.5% of the students at Permian were Hispanic, while another 26% were white and 6.1% were Black. Odessa High was 86.1% Hispanic, 10.1% white, and 2.3% Black.

And now, without a third high school, the city’s two remaining schools are so overcrowded that students are squished together “like sardines” between classes, in the words of Permian guidance counselor Adela Vasquez.

In a 2017 Population and Survey Analysts’ report commissioned by the Ector County Independent School District (ECISD), Permian and Odessa high schools were found to be 446 and 171 students above their respective capacities.

That overcrowding isn’t going to solve itself any time soon. That report projected an enrollment of 31,810 students districtwide by 2021. Now, in the 2020-21 school year, ECISD has 34,000 students.

But the reopening of Ector isn’t necessarily the simplest solution, even for an alumna like Willis. A high school on Odessa’s still-predominantly Black and Hispanic south side could be a de facto resegregation of the district, which could once again fail to fully support a predominantly Black and Hispanic student body.

“If we’re going to open Ector back up for the sake of opening Ector back up and not treat it as an equal, then we probably need to see what else is on the table,” she said.

Permian’s growing population stands in contrast to dwindling crowds at Ratliff Stadium, the colossal Odessa football stadium. Some of that can be attributed to the program’s lack of recent success and a younger, more diverse population less obsessed with a sport that has long consumed so much of the town’s attention.

a head on photo of ratcliff stadium, with the name written atop the wide, flat entrance structure with an empty parking lot in front and two light structures, with two more beyond
Ratliff Stadium, opened in 1982 at the height of Permian High School’s football success, can hold up to 20,000 fans | Photo by Joshua Skinner/Medill

“We were playing in front of 20,000 people,” said former Permian star Brian Chavez, a main character in “Friday Night Lights.” “And when you have that big of a stadium and you have 12,000 people, it looks empty…. In the 1980s, it felt like playing at the Astrodome.”

Now a lawyer in Odessa, he goes to a few Permian home games every year and sends pictures of Ratliff to Bissinger, because it’s stunning to see a half-full stadium that was standing-room-only in the ’80s.

Permian, 25 years removed from its last state championship appearance, remains a landmark program in Texas because of the magic it retains in the wake of the book and the filming of the movie on the Odessa campus. Head coach Jeff Ellison can glance out his office window and occasionally spot travelers taking pictures in front of the sign that lists Permian football’s accomplishments

But on the field, Ellison faces obstacles on the road to state that didn’t plague Gary Gaines, the head coach profiled in the book’s 1988 season and Ellison’s immediate predecessor.

Texas exurbs and smaller cities have absorbed neighboring farming communities, using the Permian model to build their football programs into powerhouses, and so Ellison has watched the rise of schools like Southlake’s Carroll High, a 3A division state champion in 1988 while Permian was slugging it out in 5A. Those Carroll Dragons have won five state titles in Texas’ top division since Permian last managed that feat and trounced the Panthers, 38-7, in the playoffs this fall.

And off the field, it’s harder for Permian to get away with players like James “Boobie” Miles, its star running back in “Friday Night Lights,” who maintained his eligibility as a senior on a class schedule tailored for someone with learning disabilities, taking freshman algebra, sophomore biology, and a language arts class designed for students at least two years behind in reading and writing.

Miles’s story is one of the driving tragic narratives of the book, after an ACL tear eliminated his chances at a Division I scholarship and professional career. A Black student from Odessa’s south side who was once beloved by the largely-white Permian fan base, he completed no education after high school and worked a variety of jobs before doing multiple stints in prison. According to Texas state records, he is currently serving a sentence for sexual assault, with an expected release date in December 2021.

In the 25th anniversary edition of his book, Bissinger wrote that schools failing to provide adequate education on the basis that a high school student will become a professional athlete sets up a scenario in which “kids are manipulated into believing it until they are thrown away.”

These back doors to pass student athletes contribute to an achievement gap, one that Dr. Scott Muri, ECISD’s new superintendent, says he’d like to change.

He made the district’s 4,200 employees go through the first step of unconscious bias training last spring because he found that Black students served 40% of the district’s school suspensions despite making up just 4% of its student population.

He, along with Brian Chavez and counselor Adela Vasquez, also suggested that the demographics of ECISD employees should more closely mirror the student population. In 2018-19, 60.6% of Permian’s teachers were white, 30.2% were Hispanic and 6.5% were Black. Norris, who once taught government at Permian, felt like an anomaly there because of the lack of Black teachers.

Since “Friday Night Lights” was published, though, Vasquez, who has worked in city, county, and regional education for decades, says she has seen Permian’s administration make an active effort to improve education for student-athletes of color, providing more tutors and support for those whose grades were too poor to qualify them for sports. It’s stricter enforcement of the no-pass, no-play rule that Permian skirted in the days of “Boobie” Miles.

It’s stricter enforcement of the no-pass, no-play rule that Permian skirted in the days of “Boobie” Miles.

Chavez has seen that shift too.

“I think the book shamed people into not being as fanatical about football,” he said. “The school district tried to get administrators to emphasize academics over athletics, as it should be.”

And yet, Permian High has made local and national headlines for playing ineligible student-athletes twice in the past decade, and behind closed doors, has battled the transfer of prominent Black athletes.

Gaven Norris has taken on the cases of several Black student-athletes tired of the environment at Permian—cases that reveal an administration with sports still at the forefront of its thinking.

In March of 2016, Norris represented Permian football and baseball player Trey Smith, who, along with two other athletes, was struggling to transfer to Odessa High and maintain athletic eligibility.

Smith’s mother Sarina was his primary guardian and lived within Odessa High’s district. But since he was a prominent athlete, Permian challenged the University Interscholastic League (UIL), the governing body that oversees public high school sports in Texas, to deem it an “athletic transfer,” preventing him from competing for Odessa High for at least one calendar year.

According to Norris and Sarina, Smith faced racist comments at Permian at least twice that spring and a baseball coach from Permian referred to him as “trying to be the modern-day Jackie Robinson,” at the team’s 2016 tryouts. She brought the problem to the Permian principal, who suggested to her that Trey wouldn’t start at Odessa High if he transferred, and other administrators made it difficult for her to withdraw him from Permian.

And on March 23 of the same year, she said, her son was the target of threatening anonymous messages—including racist slurs—on WhatsApp. The Smiths never filed a formal complaint about the messages, but they were used as evidence in the UIL hearing about Trey’s transfer request. The UIL ultimately allowed all three athletes to transfer to Odessa High with full eligibility, and the Permian baseball coach was subsequently demoted for his comments.

“I think we have to separate racism and prejudice,” Norris said. “Prejudice is the dislike or disdain for someone based on the color of their skin or ethnicity. Racism normally is prejudice, coupled with power or a system. I think we have a lot of prejudiced people, and we have a very racist education system.”

The measure of that system can be taken by looking at those included in its leadership—and those left out.

An early 20th-century postcard from Odessa, Texas | Photo courtesy of Tichnor Brothers Collection/Boston Public Library/Flickr/Creative Commons

Brian Chavez’s dream was to make a change in his hometown by running for local office and as the star character of “Friday Night Lights,” he was primed for it.

He believes he was the opposite of what people expected of a Hispanic kid growing up in Odessa, proving to be one of Permian’s strongest athletes and top students. He went to Harvard after graduating from Permian, and on to Texas Tech for a law degree.

But while he moved back to Odessa to practice, he never got around to running for local office.

“Honestly, when you’re a liberal stuck in a conservative town, it’s kind of hard to make a difference,” Chavez said. “I do have regrets of not doing it. And I think I was the chosen one in the town to do it.”

Chavez said he believes the systemic racism stems in part from the lack of leaders of color on a city or county-wide level in government and education. There was Vickie Gomez, responsible for pushing integration in the Ector County schools and battling the school board over athletic gerrymandering, but there have been few others for Chavez and his peers to look to.

A Permian athletic and academic success story and the star of a bestselling book and blockbuster film, Chavez felt pressure to take aim at Odessa’s leadership ranks. He was an obvious candidate. But he thought Adela Vasquez would be in leadership before he made it there.

As an experienced administrator with a master’s degree in guidance and counseling, she ran in the early 1980s for commissioner of Ector County’s District 3, a predominantly white district, then for the Odessa College school board in the 1990s. She lost both times.“I had a very decent reputation in the community and had been a leader, but none of that mattered,” Vasquez said. “I was a Vasquez.”

Leaving out a Vasquez meant leaving in those with discriminatory ideals.The racism in Odessa’s educational leadership came to light this summer, when Ector ISD Board of Trustees member Doyle Woodall, who is white, posted an image of a noose in a Facebook post that read, “If we want to make American great again we will have to make evil people fear punishment again.”

Woodall claimed the symbol had no racist intent, citing it as a symbol of crime and punishment, though the Southern Poverty Law Center has declared that “perhaps no other symbol — even a burning cross — depicts the horrors of racial violence” more than a noose.

Following the Ector County Teachers Association’s call for his resignation and a protest outside the Ector County ISD building, Woodall stepped down on June 11 after 11 years on the school board.

Willis, one of Odessa’s two Black city councilors, said she’s seen the city make “great strides,” during her life, but even for her, Woodall’s comments were a rude reawakening.

Buzz Bissinger last went to Odessa in 2015, a visit he claims was his last. To him, it’s still the same “ugly” flatland with the friends and foes he met decades ago. But his perspective on the city that he thrust into the spotlight carries a tinge of optimism for the future.

“I think it is a more diversified place. I think the obsession with football is not what it was.”

Buzz Bissinger, “Friday Night Lights” author

On May 31, six days after the police killing of George Floyd, recent Permian graduates Dominique Nelson and Emily LeShaw embodied Bissinger’s hopes for the city’s future, leading a group of 200 young protesters through downtown Odessa, from the Ector County courthouse to the police department.

Nelson, now a student at Odessa College, grew up in the center of the city. He has two parents working in the school system, and while he liked Permian, he felt a disconnect there, especially on the football team.

“They were all the kids over there living in the million-dollar homes,” Nelson, who is Black, said of the school’s white students. “They [have] their space to not have to be afraid.”

Nelson has no such space to shed his fear, even in his own neighborhood.

After a late-night shift at Taco Bell, police pulled over Nelson after he hit a curb while driving home in his dad’s red Mustang. When the officer approached, Nelson threw his hands out the window to demonstrate that he wasn’t armed.

The officer asked if Nelson had been drinking and what he was doing out so late. Nelson told him he had just gotten off work, and said he would get his Taco Bell hat from the passenger seat out as proof.

“By the time that I turn back around to show him my hat, his hand was already on his gun,” Nelson said. “I know that that might just seem like a police precaution because they do live a dangerous job, but to a 17-year-old Black man at 3 a.m.? You know, just a block away from his house where his mom is sleeping? It’s terrifying.”

After showing his license and the car’s registration and title, Nelson returned home, where the officer had called asking if the car had been stolen. He hasn’t worked a night shift since.

That’s what inspired him to march.

Playing football was a highlight of Nelson’s experience at Permian, but when he was old enough to read “Friday Night Lights,” he was surprised to learn that the school takes pride in a book that depicts such an ugly history.

“It was sad that a book that showed so much racism and prejudice, made [Permian football] so famous.”

Dominique Nelson, Permian alumnus

Miles’s academic journey resonated with Nelson. He felt like cheating was an acceptable way to get through class—“it was so easy to not be prepared and still make it”—and that the school didn’t prepare him for the rigor of a college education. Those were just what he called “the usual benefits” of being a Black student-athlete, and a football player, at Permian.

So there is an irony in Nelson, and Norris, molded by that status quo, leading marches on the streets of Odessa over the summer, challenging America’s racial status quo.Norris knew his march could draw opposition, but despite being in a conservative town, Odessa families on the march’s route passed out snacks and water or joined the walk.

During a moment of silence to mourn the losses of Black lives at the hands of police, he saw something else.

“We did have the first and second amendment people out there, and I remember looking across and seeing them taking a knee as well,” Norris said of conservative onlookers at the protest. “They recognized the moment for what it was. It’s about how we can build and do better as a community.”

Edited by Peter Bailey-Wells, designed by Anagha Srikanth, funded by Sunday Long Read members.