Rich White Kids and Poor Black Kids Get Coached Differently. Is That a Problem?

The stadium scene.
March 25 2014 1:14 PM

Rich Kids Are Soft, Poor Kids Need to Be Toughened Up

How race and class affect the way we coach our children.

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Nolden tells the camera he had been in plenty of trouble—”drinkin’ and smokin’ and goin’ to jail.” Now he has full custody of his son, E.J., and runs a mentoring program called Saving Our Sons. “A lot of these kids are from single-parent homes, so they don’t have that positive male role model for whatever reason,” he says. “Our whole thing is to bring up complete young men.”

Unlike other teams in the show, the Outlaws aren’t just giving lip service to “life lessons.” Nolden counsels a group of older boys to be their own personal judges. “What you have to realize is it’s easy to do the wrong things,” he says. “The right things are the things that’s hard.” When one student talks about being bullied in school, Nolden encourages the boys to tell an adult. “If you’re worrying about what people are going to think about you,” he says, “then you allow other people’s thoughts to dictate your actions, then you’re really a follower and not a leader.” Away from the football field, it’s not snitching, it’s standing up for who you are.

Nolden is tender and inspirational there, as is the head coach, Davis, when he elevates a player to team captain as a reward for good grades. But the coaches see no contradiction between such positive adult leadership and the largely negative style they employ on the field. In fact, they see them as complementary. “You’d be surprised how many moms tell me, ‘Take him, do whatever you want with him, that’s why I brought him to the Outlaws,’” says Coley, the other assistant coach. “I even had a mom come up to me, tell me, ‘I don’t want him to grow up to be a pussy. I want you to get on his butt.’ Once they give me their blessing—pfft, it’s on.”

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In other words, the coaches are loud and tough because the perceived consequences of being quiet and soft—drugs, gangs, crime, poverty—are too severe. “It looks harsh and in many ways it is harsh,” says Reuben Buford May, a sociology professor at Texas A&M University. “But the coaches have to be as harsh as the community that the young men come from so they have the young men’s attention. They cannot have their attention without reflecting what they see every day because that is what the young men respond to.”

May, who is African-American, is the author of Living Through the Hoop: High School Basketball, Race, and the American Dream and has coached youth basketball for two decades. He says that when he would tell high school players to pass to an open man, they wouldn’t. But when he screamed, “Throw the fuckin’ ball!” they would. Having 8-year-olds flip off imaginary dollar bills to celebrate a touchdown, as Colts coach Marecus Goodloe does, might not model good sportsmanship. Turning every game into a personal confrontation, as Goodloe also does when he leads his team in chanting, “Fuck the Rockets! Whoop, whoop! Fuck the Rockets!” might not either. (Goodloe and Chavarria, the head coach of the Junior Broncos, were suspended by the league for behavior displayed in Friday Night Tykes.)

But May says the players can relate. The coaches of the Colts and Outlaws—by far the best teams in San Antonio—are “responding to the cultural sensibilities of the community in which they are working. And that’s why they have success.” When (spoiler alert) the Outlaws win the state championship, it’s a validation of both the coaches’ tough talk and their tough love. “Nobody’s gonna remember who came in second,” Coley says in the finale. “They’re gonna remember who came in first. And that’s what I’m teaching, how to come in first—in life, at home, in school, and in football. Losing builds character, but winning, man that builds champions. I’d rather be a champion.” 

Who wouldn’t? The problem is that correlation doesn’t imply causation, especially in the mind of a white, upper-middle-class parent/coach (like me) who might be watching Friday Night Tykes. Maybe screaming isn’t necessary to get kids to pay attention, or to win championships. Maybe it would be better to try to change behavioral norms in the community than to reflect them back. “I think the idea that poor kids need to be beaten up to make them tough is wrong-headed on so many levels,” says Jim Thompson, president of the Positive Coaching Alliance

Thompson says the issue isn’t race or class, but how coaches coach. They can be intense without being negative. They can encourage kids to play hard, support their teammates, and respect their opponents instead of focusing on killing the other team, which almost all the Friday Night Tykes coaches do. “What will help a kid more?” Thompson asks. “Being abused when he’s playing football or learning about the concept of the emotional tank and filling his teammates’ emotional tanks?”

I’m sure the Outlaws coaches and parents would call what happens on the field discipline, not abuse. And they would choose it over an emotional tank every time. “They’re not different than you and me,” says Maranz, the show’s executive producer. “They’re asking the same things we are—how hard is too hard, how intense is too intense, how far is too far? But they have defined it differently. Absolutely and uniformly, their answer is: We should be extreme.” That doesn’t make the outrageous behavior depicted on Friday Night Tykes any more palatable, but it might make it easier to understand.

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