When the ESPN report on the 1988 Dallas Carter High School tragedy airs, I, for one, will be pinned to the screen. It’s a story that has haunted me since it happened, in part because it’s a story most mainstream media outlets have had a hard time telling. The program 30 for 30 will air the Carter story Aug. 24.
The Carter Cowboys were state champions in 1988, but they were much more. In a state where high school football enjoyed near-religious importance, the stars of that team were demigods. One of the schools they trounced on their way to the championship that year was Odessa Permian, the team later made famous by the television serial Friday Night Lights. That show could have been about the Carter team. But it also could not have been.
Six players on the Carter team were among 15 kids caught and convicted in a string of armed robberies. They received sentences ranging from two to 25 years in prison from District Judge Judge Joe Kendall. Kendall rejected all pleas for leniency.
A decade later, when Kendall was on the federal bench, he imposed a similarly tough sentence on the late Al Lipscomb, a black Dallas City Council member convicted in Kendall’s court of bribery. That sentence later was set aside by a federal appeals court for an impropriety on the part of the judge.
Three years after the Carter High School story happened, I was a freelance writer, not working for a newspaper. I had a literary agent, the late Janet Manus, who was adept at placing true-crime stories with movie companies. At that time, network television was buying a lot of true crime for made-for-television movies.
It was kind of a weird business. I sold a ton of those things, very few of which were ever made into movies. Movie companies paid what Hollywood considered a meager pittance for the right to hold a property for a year or so while they thought about it. Their meager pittance was my pretty good money. So even if I did not thrive, I survived.
I got pretty far down the road with a production company that wanted to buy the Carter High Cowboys story from me. How did I own the story? Well, I didn’t, but … it’s complicated. Maybe not worth going into here.
The Carter stars were mainly from middle- to upper-middle-class families. I think there were some poor kids in there, too, but the inner story was about privileged young men, some of them spoiled with hot cars and other parental munificence, all of them led to believe they were superstars when they were too young to understand what any of that really meant or how to survive it.
They flew too close to the sun. Their wings melted. They crashed into hell. That’s how I sold it.
And I got way down the road with this Hollywood type who was practically salivating for the property. Janet, my agent, kept telling me: “Do not discuss money with him, Jimmy. I am going to do very well for us with this one if you can manage to keep your mouth shut about the money.” I managed.
And then the guy called me in a rage. I was sure he had understood that this was a black high school. But he did not understand that at all. He was furious. He said I had wasted his time and was trying to defraud him.
"How defraud?" I asked. He said I had painted the kids as privileged, spoiled and some of them rich. I said, yes — privileged, spoiled, rich and black. He said I was an idiot. It wasn’t possible, he said, for “characters,” as he kept calling them, to be all of those things at the same time.
I didn’t want to argue. I was pitching a story. Every journalist should be required at some point in life to go through a period when he has to sell. You learn not to argue, at least not with the people to whom you are pitching something.
So I asked him as nicely as I could manage why the kids couldn’t be privileged and black at the same time. Then he accused me of accusing him of being a racist, which sort of made me feel like spinning my head around in circles and projectile vomiting, but I didn’t.
And actually, I had been here before, a year earlier with a story I had written a book about. It was about a drug gang in Mexico that fell under the sway of a Cuban witch doctor and started eating people’s hearts. A Hollywood producer told me he loved the story, but it had too many Mexicans in it. But he also kept telling me he was not a racist. The guy in the Carter High story said the same thing.
Their version of it was that they were not expressing their own biases, only the reality of certain biases in the audience. They couldn’t produce movies in which the main characters were nonwhite, they both said, unless they were producing a movie about race as an issue. Nonwhite characters could not be credible or engaging, they both said, in any story that was not about race itself.
I realize that the name is now politically poisonous, but the person at the time who was making fools of people who thought like that was Bill Cosby. Cosby's show on television was almost never about race, and all of the main characters were black.
Within a few years after Cosby, my little white kid was watching black sitcoms all the time without even realizing he was watching black sitcoms. He thought he was just watching sitcoms. I am convinced now that those shows, almost never about race, had everything to do with the much-reduced level of racism to be found in young white people today.
My Hollywood experience helped me understand how little racism actually has to do with philosophy. After all, Hollywood is famously liberal at the overt philosophical level. But so what? I was convinced back then that Hollywood was the most racist town in America because it was full of people who couldn’t see outside their white, no matter what they thought their philosophy was. Of course, I wasn’t dealing with it at the top level. And that was a while ago.
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The Carter High story certainly was not free from important racial themes once the story got to court. A bunch of rich white kids from University Park would not have received sentences like that even if they had killed people. So I suppose you could say, yes, it was about race: Somebody should have told those Carter kids they couldn’t get away with being entitled, stupid and black at the same time. Only white kids could get away with all that.
Maybe I was the fool running the errand. I wanted to steer clear of race because I knew there would not be a commercial market for a high school football civil rights documentary. But I was truly convinced there were universal themes of youth, hubris and tragedy that would lift the story up out of race.
I don’t expect the ESPN special to do all that. As I say, the real story wound up having important race-based properties. And anyway, we’re not there yet. I still don’t believe the larger white American audience could comprehend the Carter tragedy without reference to race.
For one thing, to do that, you would have to be able to name the sins of the black kids without giving them slack for being black. There’s another eye of the needle that old American camel probably can’t quite wriggle through yet. But I sure will be watching Aug. 24, just in case. 30 for 30, ESPN. Check for times.