Consuming pop culture is one of my favorite introvert activities. In Problematica, I’ll explore the political implications of a specific pop culture piece — a song, a character from a film or book, a TV episode, etc. — that I love, regardless of how good, bad, or mixed its politics may be.
In July, I was hired as a field organizer for a local progressive electoral campaign. This includes participating in intensive training on the basics of organizing and how to persuade voters who may not be fully aligned with our anti-capitalist agenda. I love this work, way more than any job I’ve ever been paid to do. But striving hard to get better at it during a limited time period has been a mammoth and deeply humbling challenge.
I’m currently on a three day vacation in the Virginia mountains, trying to think about work as little as possible. Right after my last shift I got sucked into a Friday Night Lights marathon, which made me remember my favorite scene from the series: Dillon high school principal Tami Taylor convinces a misbehaving student’s parents to allow him to keep playing football. Coming fresh off a training on persuasion, I’ve decided Tami is one of my organizing role models.
In season 3 episode 7 “Keeping Up Appearances,” Dillon Panthers fullback Jamarcus Hall gets in trouble for accidentally lighting a science lab on fire. Since this isn’t Jamarcus’s first trip to her office, Principal Tami arranges a meeting with his parents. She explains that Jamarcus must improve his behavior or he could get suspended and miss some games. Turns out Mr. and Mrs. Hall had no idea their son played football. Tami later tells Coach Eric Taylor (who is also her husband) that the Halls have decided to pull Jamarcus from the team. Coach loses his temper, saying he wishes she had let him discuss the fire incident with Jamarcus’s parents. Tami insists that it wouldn’t have made a difference if he did, the result would have been the same.
Coach and Tami later visit the Halls at home. As they walk up to the front door, Coach says, “Just let me do the talking.” Tami counters that she has an established relationship with the parents, but Coach snaps, “I know what I’m doing.” Tami just shrugs and follows him inside.
Mr. Hall doesn’t waste any time explaining his and his wife’s point of view. “We’re just not football people.” He’s an engineer at the local plant who’s moved his family several times, and says they’re “just passing through” Dillon. As Tami silently watches, Coach launches into his philosophical defense — “Football is about community spirit.” Now Mr. Hall snaps at him, saying, “All this time I thought it was just a dumb game that this whole wacked-out town is obsessed with.”
Just gonna pause my recap here to say, I love this character. For me he might be the most relatable character in the entire series. I also don’t give a damn about football and would find a town like Dillon extremely alienating. I’ve got nothing against isolated, economically blighted, rural communities with few prospects for young people, because that’s just a small town version of the rust belt suburb where I grew up. But if I were expected to fangirl over my high school’s football team, or spend every Friday night at the game because it is the life blood of my community, I would have been miserable.
But of course Coach can’t relate to that because he loves the game, so he becomes defensive. “I don’t think I’d be devoting my life to some dumb game.” Seeing where this is going, Tami defies their agreement and jumps in to acknowledge Mr. and Mrs. Hall’s viewpoint. “It took me a long time to understand all this fuss about football… But I’ve seen football do great things for kids.” Tami credits Coach for helping his players develop personal responsibility, which also pays off academically. When Mrs. Hall counters that their son has been lying to them for a year, Tami picks up on their need for discipline and assures them that Coach “will make him regret the day he ever did that.” Having made her case, Tami invites the Halls to attend the next game so they can see their son play. They agree, and Coach silently eats shit as he and Tami walk back to the car. Meanwhile she teases him mercilessly. “I think that went well! You’re opening the door for me? Oh, so sweet.”
I realized when I rewatched this scene that Tami employs a persuasive organizing tactic called Affirm-Answer-Redirect. The Halls want to pull their son from the team because they think football is a stupid distraction from his schoolwork. Instead of getting huffy like Coach and arguing that football is actually good, Tami affirms their opinion (she didn’t get the fuss either), answers the concern (it can actually help Jamarcus be a better student), and redirects the course of action (come see him play and then make a decision). Her strategy works because, as she told her husband, she’d already met the Halls. But more importantly, it works because she listens and responds to their concerns instead of coming in with some grand, prefabricated argument.
I’ve always loved and admired Tami as a mom but it only recently occurred to me that her empathy and listening skills would also make her an incredible organizer. They’re the qualities I recognize in the best ones I know. And wouldn’t you know it, most of them tend to be women and nonbinary folks. Effective organizing doesn’t hinge on star power, charisma, or telling people what to think. It’s about listening when people tell you what they want and need, finding common ground, and then encouraging them to become part of the solution. Of course Coach, being a strong-willed man, thought he would be the one to persuade the Halls. But naturally it was Tami — equipped with the skills of a former guidance counselor — who moved them to change their mind.
I also love that Tami values her own gifts. As she later explains to a nerdy student who is second-guessing the bright future she predicts for him, she says, “I am right 100% of the time. You can ask my husband.”