By Grace Hitzeman
If Buzz Bissinger’s Twitter persona is indicative of anything, Kenyon could be in for quite a Thursday night.
The Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and author, notorious for picking fights and coining curse words over Twitter, will speak tonight at 8:00 p.m. in Rosse Hall. Bissinger is also a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and a columnist at The Daily Beast. Known primarily as a sports journalist, he has published work in Sports Illustrated, The New York Times and The New Republic.
“In light of recent developments in collegiate sports, Student Lectureships thought it might be relevant and interesting for him to address such topics as the ethics in college sports,” Student Lecturships member Sam Heuck ’12 said.
The group expects a large turnout and plans to open the doors at 7:30 p.m. to accommodate the crowd. They brought Bissinger to Kenyon via his son Caleb Bissinger ’13 (the Collegian’s news editor). “Because his son is a current student, Bissinger is happy to come to Kenyon, see his son and give this talk,” Heuck said.
Bissinger is most famous for writing Friday Night Lights, which has since inspired both a movie and a television show. He said he got the idea to write a book about high school football in small towns when he took a road trip in the South.
“Downtown Main Street USA was falling apart even then, but you’d drive a couple more blocks and there was the football stadium, which always looked gorgeous,” Bissinger said. “They were always painted and the lawns were watered even if there was a drought. Then it hit me: these just aren’t stadiums, these are temples. These are shrines to people’s hopes and dreams on a Friday night.”
Bissinger said he thought about writing the book about a high school in Ohio for a short time, but eventually decided against it.
“I felt that if I was going to write about high school football, I had to do it in Texas,” Bissinger said.
He picked the Permian Panthers of Odessa because he was looking for a team in West Texas that he hoped could go deep into the playoffs. It also had a brand new stadium that seated 19,000 people. “It was isolated, so football was the preoccupation of the town,” Bissinger said. He and his family, including his twin sons, moved to Odessa and after that, “Friday Night Lights came out in 1990, and the rest is history.”
Bissinger’s upcoming book, Father’s Day, is about his twin sons, who were born three months premature and are now 28 years old.
At their birth, the state of their health was unknown. They were born “at a time when male twins, at that size, often did not survive,” Bissinger said.
Each of the twins weighed less than two pounds, but there were – and still are – stark differences between the two. “Gerry, the bigger of the two, came out without any residual effects. He has thrived in life and is a full-time teacher, getting his Ph.D. in education. … Zach, who is the smallest and the second one out by three minutes, has brain damage,” Bissinger said. The premise for the book is “how three minutes can define a lifetime.”
“It’s about a father grappling with these twins who are inverted mirrors of one another and grappling with a child who is extremely different from what you expect. We all have dreams when your wife is pregnant about what your child will be like, and Zach turned out to be very different than this dream,” Bissinger said. “Once you reach some level of acceptance, you begin to see the wonder of a child like that.”
Raising a mentally disabled child led Bissinger to consider the effectiveness of the school system.
“Zach was lucky that he came at a time when school systems were more willing to give children like Zach what they needed,” he said. “I think they’re much less willing to do it now; there’s a lot of mainstreaming with a professional aide in the room. That works for some kids, but I think for a lot of kids it doesn’t work.”
Bissinger added that parents, too, must adjust to raising a learning-impaired child. “I think it’s a matter of parents having the right expectations, and it’s a matter of schools realizing that, yes, these kids are different. They aren’t going to have the intellectual tools to get into Kenyon, Oberlin, Harvard or Yale, but they really do have divine quality if they’re nurtured and if they are appreciated,” he said, “So if you are a parent, fight like hell.”
In addition to Bissinger’s opinions on special needs education, he also has strong opinions on the role sports should play in academics. Like football teams at small schools, sports at the college level can have a mixed effect on the institution, according to Bissinger.
“Sports play too much of a role in our academic institutions, regardless of the size. No one has made an effective argument to me that they have any real impact on academics,” Bissinger said. “I know players will tell you, and I understand [and] appreciate this, that sports helped them to become a better person, learn about teamwork, learn how to be a leader and things like that, but they cost a lot of money, and very few schools make money from them.”
Still, he sees exceptions.
“There are certain cases, like the Kenyon swimming team, that it’s a point of pride for the school … as long as the swimmers adhere to the same academic standards as the rest of the student body,” Bissinger said.
He offered a different suggestion for Kenyon’s football team.
“I also know that Kenyon has a football team which has been woefully unsuccessful,” he added. “I imagine that it attracts no students at all. I imagine that it costs the most by far of any sport and it should be dropped like it was dropped at Swarthmore, which is an exceptional college, like Kenyon, and it isn’t worth the price. You have to recruit too many kids to have a competitive football team, and that money can go to other things and it should. I don’t know what point it serves. … Athletic programs are huge money-losers and they really benefit a small percent of the student body, and at a time when tuition is going up and faculty salaries are stagnant, it cannot be justified. There are other places where you can learn about leadership and teamwork and discipline. … The point of college is to learn, not to play sports.”
Although Bissinger earned his fame writing sports stories, he won his Pulitzer Prize for an investigation into the Philadelphia court system. He has also written for television series like “NYPD Blue.” Bissinger advises young writers “to write, read [and] try not to get discouraged.” Keeping a casual record of thoughts can also be useful, he said.
“I think keeping a journal is a good thing. Anytime you want to be a writer, I think you need something that catches your fancy, a certain scene or a certain moment in time. Write it down [and] I wouldn’t worry about the grammar or the sentence structure,” Bissinger said. “I think, for me at least, the most important thing is to capture the visceral emotions of what you see and get it on the page and then after that, when you are writing something, think about structure all the time. It’s all about story-telling. The best way to learn that is reading.”
Bissinger also emphasized the differences between the types of writing he does for different print media. “When you’re working for a newspaper, you aren’t able to still have that same voice or point of view that you can have when you’re writing a book. I like writing with a strong voice, sometimes over the top, and I like having a specific point of view,” Bissinger said. “Everything I use is factual, and I do a lot of reporting, but writing is different in a book. The organizational problems in a book are 100 times harder than anything I ever did for a newspaper.”
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