A few years ago, I wrote a post in which I declared that my son would never play organized football due to the health risks. When it ran on The Huffington Post this past fall, I got some angry comments.
So I was a little surprised when the people at the Esquire Network (check your local listings!) reached out and asked if I’d be interested in writing about the second season of their TV show about youth football in Texas, “Friday Night Tykes.”
I agreed, and have since viewed the first two episodes of the season (the third airs tonight at 9PM EST on Esquire Network). Has my opinion changed?
The short answer? Not one bit.
The longer answer? This show has done more to make me question being a fan of the NFL more than anything I’ve seen on Sunday afternoons.
I’ve known of the show but hadn’t previously seen more than a few minutes of it. I was pretty sure I knew how I felt: it’s about hyper-competitive, football obsessed parents indoctrinating young children into a dangerous game, which, GROSS. But it’s also about football, which I love to watch. So I’m a little conflicted.
Here’s the official synopsis:
With exclusive access, FRIDAY NIGHT TYKES follows five teams in the San Antonio division of the Texas Youth Football Association (TYFA) from registration and pre-season practices, through the playoffs and championships. This season, the action centers on the 10- and 11-year-old age group, where the players are bigger, faster and the game more explosive … and dangerous. Also in the spotlight are the changes teams have made to their training methods after several coaches were suspended last season for encouraging dangerous play and profanity.
The Texas Youth Football Association is billed as “the most competitive youth football league in America.” Emphasis on the word “Texas,” where football is, famously, “a way of life”; just read the book on which this series’ title is based. Still not convinced? The “previously on…” clip package that plays ahead of the first season showcases a coach telling his players to rip the other team’s heads off, and another coach yelling at a player that emotions aren’t allowed because they’re a female trait. We also learn that one of the coaches was banned for a year for promoting illegal and dangerous hitting. All in all, it’s pretty light stuff! [[/sarcasm]
After watching two episodes, my problem with the show is the same as my problem with the NFL. Solely by watching it, you begin to feel complicit. “Friday Night Tykes” can’t help but promote the very behavior it tries to pretend it doesn’t necessarily support; it attempts to have its cake and eat it too. Unfortunately, in this cake, it’s a ten-year-old’s birthday cake, not a grown man’s.
Which isn’t to say “Friday Night Tykes” isn’t compelling, or entertaining. It is, and therein lies the quandary, one that’s not all that dissimilar than the one that faces fans of the National Football League. I’m on record as saying I’ll never let my son play organized football, even as I drag him to a bar every Sunday to see the Dolphins play, and even as I participate in two fantasy football leagues. Which may or may not make me a hypocrite. The game is fun to watch. This TV show can be too. If you can stomach the rough parts.
To its credit, “Friday Night Tykes” doesn’t glamorize the behavior of the coaches, or shy away from the aforementioned rough parts – which include adults cursing out children, forcing kids to play through pain to “teach” them the game, and even encouraging them to hit so hard they knock other players out. Esquire Network is merely “documenting” the league, and as such we’re to believe that they neither condone nor condemn it. Do they exploit it? Probably, but no more than any “documentary series” exploits its subjects, and certainly no more than TYFA exploits the kids who participate.
And make no mistake, while the kids surely see some benefits, like discipline, and exercise, and being a part of something bigger, it is painfully apparent how much more important these games are to the adults involved. When you have individual position coaches staffing a team of ten- and eleven-year-olds, it’s safe to say the adults are pretty heavily invested. The show itself focuses on the grown-ups, as if to concede that it’s the decision-makers who deserve scrutiny, not the impressionable kids.
(I’d argue that the same benefits these kids are getting from football can be gained from other, less contact-based youth sports – including ones in which the participation of a girl like the likable, “obese” Zoe, who doesn’t even know what a sack is, wouldn’t be nearly as provocative.)
Working against the show is how appalling and hard it can be to watch. It’s just not fun to see a kid whose voice hasn’t changed yet writhe in agony after a vicious hit – in practice! – and then get told to walk it off. After ten minutes, I was angry and nauseous, and more convinced than ever that my son will never play organized football. After the second episode wraps up with a kid breaking his arm near the end of a blowout, I Detective Munch would never play in the TYFA! And I’m still not sure if I’ll keep watching the show.
Once you join the NFL, you’re an adult who’s old enough to make you’re own choices. But in order to make it that far, you need to have a good 8-10 years of experience under your belt. Novices don’t make the Super Bowl. And knowing what we know about the cumulative effect of concussions, ten years of football, starting as early as eight or ten, leaves way too much opportunity for the kinds of accumulated trauma that lead men with dementia and depression by age 50.
“Friday Night Tykes” tries to counter such obvious complaints. One prominent coach prevents a child for playing after he’s suffered two concussions. Before he’s even 12. And a new coach has joined the league, one who seems focused on fostering a sense of fun and teaching safety, even implementing the anti-concussion “Heads Up” tackling technique that has been youth football’s primary response to the controversy. This coach, who doesn’t have a child of his own in the league, stands in sharp contract to the coach who was suspended for “targeting.” But he’s just one man, standing alone, against an entire culture. (His team promptly gets crushed.)
The fact is, you can’t be good at football if you’re not aggressive and tough. In order to succeed, it’s necessary to teach those attributes. I’d argue that ten and eleven is a little early for it, but if you believe that football is the only chance for some of these kids to escape dead-end lives, and if you subscribe to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 Hour Rule, starting around ten or eleven probably makes sense.
Personally, I don’t think the risk is worth it. And I’m not sure the people behind “Friday Night Tykes” do either.
But you can find out for yourself, Tuesday nights at 9PM EST, on the Esquire Network.