Before he gets to the semifinal game, Bissinger describes Carter High School in Dallas—in particular, its peculiar academic reputation. During the fall ’88 season, Carter had become famous state- and nationwide for its academic troubles, related, of all things, to the Algebra II grade earner by a football player named Gary Edwards. Edwards, like other Carter players, was basically required to do very little schoolwork—sometimes he and teammate Derric Evans would sit down to take tests and find their exam papers with answers already on them, provided by the teachers. Evans and Edwards needed only to keep a state minimum grade in all subjects to maintain athletic eligibility, and to help Carter win a state championship.
If Permian could be considered academically problematic, then Carter is a school where football so clearly reigns supreme, it is hard to imagine what the school would look like without its team. The eligibility requirements, as Bissinger describes them, are more or less nominal, designed to make the system look honest. But they are easily gotten around. And in this instance, Carter High puts as much pressure on the state as possible, to ensure that Edwards will be able to play in the state tournament.
In Algebra II, Will Bates, Edwards’ teacher, had given him a non-passing grade, below 70, for the semester, before Edwards, at the football coach’s insistence, was switched to an easier algebra class. But Edwards grade was “reevaluated” by his teachers, who felt that the new, easier algebra grades, including “participation,” had counted for too much. Thus the superintendent of Dallas schools, brought on to review Edwards’ eligibility, changed Edwards’ grade back to a 68.75, not high enough to pass. Edwards was kept off the football team, and three victories were forfeit for Carter, keeping them out of the playoffs.
Although Bates’ motivations are never made fully explicit, it appears that he is just doing his job, holding his students accountable, and grading as the homework, tests, and other scores dictate. But Bates’ opposition to the prevailing football culture cannot stand for long. As the long, litigious process here outlined indicates, Carter will not stop, as an institution, until Edwards is cleared to play, because Carter wants, more than anything, to win the state title in football.
But this was not to be the last word in Carter’s football saga, for the ’88 season. For, after much criticism in the local press, Dallas’s school superintendent changed Edwards’ grade back to a 72, after “reevaluating” again Edwards’ participation and homework scores. A grade above 70 meant that the team’s victories were reinstated, and Carter was back in the playoffs, where it beat Plano. The superintendent had accidentally waded into a quagmire, angering nearly everyone in Dallas: white families, who believed he was helping a largely black school (Carter) to succeed; black families, who believed the superintendent had unfairly targeted Edwards from the beginning; and other schools, who believed they, not Carter, should be playing in the state playoffs.
Bissinger also notes the racial element in these proceedings, which, as in all things in Texas, complicates what was already a fairly murky situation. For it would appear unfair for the state to come down on a historically black school, when many other “white” schools, like Permian, are surely also making plain that football players will pass, in order that they can take the field and help their teams to win. For Bissinger, the problem is not racial but rather systemic, and it stems from the position football maintains over all other high school activities in the state.
As Bissinger reports, the issue was resolved in a state legal case, broadcast by the media across Texas—as Carter continued to play in the playoffs (since Edwards had been reinstated to the team under the superintendent’s direction). A first court case, in a lower regional court, saw a judge order that Edwards had, in fact, failed Algebra II, and that the Dallas superintendent was wrong to interfere in the grading process. But Carter supporters petitioned for, and were granted, a stay from a higher court, allowing Carter to remain in the playoffs, where they beat Marshall High in the quarters and setting up a showdown with Permian in the state semis. As John Wilkins, the Ector County athletic director, arranged for the playoff game with Carter, Carter supporters awaited a state court decision on whether Carter and Edwards were eligible to play.
Carter, then, is allowed to remain in the playoffs, and though Bissinger argues that this is probably an unfair system—even a ludicrous system, with its court proceedings over a three point swing in the algebra grade of a single student—it appears more or less an inevitable outcome. For these towns, and school districts, football is an investment—schools pour thousands and thousands of dollars into their programs, and they do so because they want to win championships, and because winning championships builds up their community support. Although schools know that they should put academics first, the pressure within fan communities on the football team is so great, it causes compromises to be made, and from there the cycle is self-propelling.
As Bissinger points out, the state judge ruled, finally, that Carter was eligible, that Edwards’ grade was as open to interpretation as anything else, and that it was up to the discretion of the school and its superintendent to set that grade. The state court judge also argued that it was “absurd” to try to set grades by statute in order to guarantee football eligibility. Carter rejoiced and prepared for its game against Permian. And, as Bissinger concludes, only one person had serious consequences for his behavior: Will Bates, whose “salary was frozen,” and who was moved into an industrial-arts classroom in a Dallas middle school, where his grading could no longer affect football players’ careers.
As in all controversies, too, there must be a scapegoat, and here, since the institution of Carter High, and its football team, is so powerful, an individual, rather than an entire system, will have to be punished. Will Bates, whose only “crime” was giving a student a deserved failing grade, is demoted into a job for which he is overqualified, just so that Carter will never again have to worry about Bates grading a football player. Put another way: the school will do what it must, and can legally do, to protect its football team from academic standards or expectations.