As someone who counts getting escorted out of an auditorium by Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf’s hired goons as one of my proudest moments, I never thought I’d admit to having something substantial, even intimate, in common with Mitt Romney. But as it turns out, the Republican presidential candidate and I are both fans of the TV series Friday Night Lights (2006-2011), a gritty, realist drama centered on a high school football team and the largely working-class residents of the fictional town of Dillon, Texas. What more, we both find inspiration in a motto that “Coach” Eric Taylor, with a combination of unwavering determination and tenderness, utters to his team at the end of every pre-game locker room huddle: “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose.” Indeed, in the final stretch of completing my Literature PhD last summer, the slogan stared back at me from the wall in front of my desk. In the midst of tearful frustration and paralyzing anxiety, Coach Taylor was there, Zen-like, to help me get my head back in the game.
So imagine my dismay when a friend shared an article describing how Romney, high off his “victory” in the first presidential debate, adopted a slightly amended version of Coach Taylor’s motto — “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, America Can’t Lose” — as the official home-stretch slogan of his campaign. I was hardly the only person shaken up by Romney’s appropriation of the Friday Night Lights motto. Peter Berg, the series creator, immediately sent Romney an angry letter accusing him of having plagiarized his expression. “Your politics and campaign are clearly not aligned with the themes we portrayed in our series,” he further explained. Unmoved by Berg’s request that he “come up with (his) own slogan,” Romney continues to feature the line on his Facebook page and in campaign materials. His campaign website even encourages visitors to “Support America’s Comeback Team” by ordering a $10 set of red, white, and blue rubber bracelets with the motto emblazoned on each one.
My personal stake in Romney’s use of “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose” lies not just in my appreciation of a show containing some of the most respectful, affirming representations of working-class people since Roseanne. I also wrote a dissertation chapter focused on what I’m calling the Friday Night Lights “franchise” of texts: the 1990 sports journalism classic by Buzz Bissinger (who, in a disappointing yet intriguing twist in this saga, is voting for Romney); the 2004 film, also directed by Berg, based on Bissinger’s book; and the TV series inspired by the book and film. I wrote about these texts because I needed to reckon with something from which, as a working-class girl from a sports-obsessed small town, I fled: the kind of “small-minded” people who turned their children into heroes on the football field only to watch them take their place on the assembly line — or, more bleakly, the cell block — after graduation. What I observed in these texts, however, was how small-town high school football can function as a collectively owned asset — an ever-growing “archive” of moments demonstrating the inherent worth of members of that community — with which to counter constant exposure to the unstable, exploitative labor conditions created by unregulated free-market capitalism. Football, in other words, is a matter of working-class dignity. As one coach from Bissinger’s book put it to his young team: “Later on in life they can take your money away from you, they can take your house, they can take your car, they can’t take this kind of stuff away from you, something you’ll always have and always be proud of.” Any way you look at it, Romney and his ilk are the “they” to whom this coach is referring.
The main source of my anger over Romney’s use of the “Clear Eyes” slogan — a slogan belonging to those small-town working class kids and the Coach they respect, who respects them back whatever their circumstances — is the entitled smugness with which he just reaches out and takes. This theft reflects the general attitude of the corporate class toward the world they inhabit and the policies they promote to sustain their right to take. Cutting taxes for the wealthy while raising middle class taxes to pay for such cuts, as Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan would do, is a particularly frightening example of this “we take what we want, no apologies” outlook. As we learned from the 2008 mortgage crisis and corporate bailouts to follow, the economic system is designed to insulate the takers from any potential repercussions associated with their greed.
That greed is especially insidious when cast as an appeal to the very “heartland” working people who will be most affected by the taker’s anti-labor, social contract gutting political moves. One of the most haunting moments from Bissinger’s book comes when he cites a few lines from George Bush senior’s 1988 Republican National Convention acceptance speech. Hot on the tail of an enthusiastically received campaign stop in Midland, Texas, where he once briefly lived, Bush reminisced:
Now we moved to West Texas forty years ago, forty years ago this year. And the war was over, and we wanted to get out and make it on our own… We lived in a little shotgun house, one room for the three of us, worked in the oil business, and then started my own.
And in time, we had six children; moved from the shotgun to a duplex apartment to a house, and lived the dream—high school football on Friday nights…
There’s so much taking going on here. Bush, a Yale graduate and banker’s son, takes hardship, takes struggle. With the slippages of a clever speechwriter, he turns a one-room “shotgun house” into a densely populated shack (did they really have six children before moving out?). From shotgun to duplex to house, he takes upward class mobility, that story, for his own. And, like Romney, he takes “the dream” of small-town high school football.
Romney is not only taking Coach Taylor’s motto. Like Bush, he is making a grab at working-class identity. In a cover photo featured last week on his Facebook page, Romney’s back is turned to the camera, rain pouring down his jacket in a nighttime scene reminiscent of Coach Taylor’s many contemplative looks across an empty field. Since we don’t see Romney’s face, there is little to distinguish him from a Coach whose sincerity, humility, and finely-tuned force of character mark him as a man that anyone — even a feminist agitator like myself — would follow.
Bush and Romney want access to those moments of greatness beneath the lights not just as admirers, but as participants in the collective authoring of the American story: “making memories,” as the series’s Silverado-driving fullback Tim Riggins would put it. However disingenuous a performance, Bush senior was telling communities like Midland, “Not only do I value the dream that you’re living, but I’ve lived it too — I’ve made those memories. Your story is my story.” The irony, of course, is that the archive of community memories granting value to working-class experience is especially important in light of conservative economic policies that leave working people with so few stable assets to hold onto, things they can’t take. Plumbing small-town high school football for political capital is an attempt to destabilize something that remains a small but deeply meaningful source of self-empowerment for the working class.
In one of the series’ most memorable episodes, Coach Taylor walks slowly through the locker room at halftime of the first game played by the East Dillon Lions, the inexperienced, poorly equipped team with which he has been saddled. As he regards his battered team — his quarterback has a badly sprained ankle; one of his fullbacks is spitting blood — a look of sad resignation crosses the Coach’s face. He walks back to the field, ready to do what he must: forfeit the game in order to keep his vulnerable players from further harm. Coach Taylor knows that for his team to stand a chance of eventual success, players must have their health, decent equipment, and any other resources he can provide.
Contrast that with another Romney attempt to channel the Coach. Last week, he staged a touch football game between his campaign staffers and members of the press corps. Romney’s advice to his team? “Figure out which of their players is best and take them out early… That’s right, don’t worry about injuries guys, this counts. Win.” Coach Taylor leads with a community-first ethos that Romney, with his instinct to “take out” anyone standing in the way of his personal win-loss record, could not fake if his life depended on it. Responding to the slogan drama, one popular Friday Night Lights fan blog gives it to him straight: “Hey Mitt: You, sir, are no Coach Taylor.”
Sara Appel is a Visiting Research Scholar in the Program in Literature at Duke University.