To hear Stefan Fatsis, Josh Levin, and Mike Pesca discuss Friday Night Tykes on Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen, fast-forward to the 17:43 mark in the audio player below:
Friday Night Tykes, the Esquire Network’s series about a youth football league in Texas, has kicked up a cloud of gridiron dust about the ills of children’s sports in America. Blowhard coaches swear in front of their 8- and 9-year-old players. They order them to hit opponents in the head. They deliver graphic speeches packed with violent imagery. (“You have the opportunity, today, to rip their freakin’ head off and let them bleed!” bellows coach Charles Chavarria of the Junior Broncos.) Parents run onto the field and taunt the opposing team. Players vomit and cry on the sidelines. When the kids speak at all, it’s usually to shout, “Yes, sir!”
If the show weren’t a documentary, it could be a parody, like the Saturday Night Live skit in which Peyton Manning hurls footballs and curses at a group of kids. I’ve watched all 10 episodes, including Tuesday night’s finale, and there is very little redeeming in the win-at-all-costs culture that pervades the kiddie teams in the Texas Youth Football Association. Friday Night Tykes is a catalogue of coaching excess and cliché that contravenes decades of research on children and sports. “All of the knowledge we have about the social, psychological, and physical development of young people is ignored,” says Jay Coakley, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Colorado–Colorado Springs who has been studying sports and society since the 1970s.
Of course, the tsk-tsking of a sociology professor—or a writer—isn’t likely to have any effect on the adults who get screen time in Friday Night Tykes. It’s not news that some youth sports coaches are ignorant bullies living out distorted Belichickian fantasies—or that they justify their behavior by claiming it’s for the good of the children, as the Texas pee-wee coaches constantly do. In that, Friday Night Tykes could have been made in any state, about almost any sport. More importantly than exposing another bunch of loudmouth coaches, though, the show reveals a less-obvious and less-examined phenomenon: the way that race and class inform how adults perceive children and how they coach them.
Friday Night Tykes follows five teams from the San Antonio area. According to Executive Producer Matt Maranz, only one of the teams, the predominantly white Junior Broncos, draws its players mostly from the same neighborhood, one located in a more affluent part of the city. The Predators also are mostly white. The Junior Rockets have money; the team spends $16,000 on uniforms. The Northeast Colts are predominantly black and middle-class. The Outlaws are the outliers. The team also is predominantly black, but many of its coaches and players live in inner-city neighborhoods.
The contrast isn’t lost on the show’s producers. In one episode, a wrought-iron electronic gate slides open and two white children in backpacks stroll into a community with spotless streets and sculpted lawns. “The north side, their life is a little different,” Outlaws assistant coach Tony Coley says. “Three-car garages, they’re raising their kids different. I use the words ‘soft as Charmin tissues.’” Cut to the city’s abandoned Friedrich refrigerator factory. Cracked sidewalks pocked with weeds, cars parked in front yards, black children playing on grass gone brown. “Over here on the east side, it’s a little harder,” Coley says. “When somebody gets hit, parents don’t break out and cry. They be like, ‘Boy, get the hell up. You better get ’em next time.’ ”
The supposed truism that rich kids are pampered and poor kids need to be toughened up informs just about everything the Outlaws coaches do, much of which isn’t pretty. The team scrimmages against 10- and 11-year-olds, a risky proposition given disparities in height and weight. The coaches run a version of the Oklahoma drill, in which two players charge at each other from close range. When Coley’s son, the quarterback, pukes during a game, his father snaps, “Stop your fucking cryin’,” and sends him back in. (He scores a touchdown, the ends apparently justifying the means.)
When a player has to miss a game to attend a family wedding, Outlaws head coach Fred Davis tells him, “You don’t need to go to no damn wedding, man. ... If you ain’t gettin’ married, there ain’t no point in you goin’.” Of the star running back on another team, Coley instructs his players, “I want him to tap out. I want him to quit. I want you to hit that fool so hard that his legs get airborne and his mama holler and the daddy start cryin’.”
In one startling scene, the Outlaws coaches gather the team together after a parent complains about her son’s playing time. “Ain’t nobody scared of none of y’all parents,” Coley barks. “None. I will tell y’all that from the beginning. So keep your mouths closed.” Another assistant coach, Eric Nolden, adds: “Every time somebody say somethin’ to one of y’all out here, y’all runnin’ searchin’ for a tit. It’s not gonna be in your mouth too much longer. Y’all need to toughen up.” The message: Stop snitching.
Coaching though fear, threat, hostility, intimidation, physical punishment, and profanity is inappropriate at any age. It’s especially offensive with children who are 8 and 9, and who will do whatever an authority figure tells them, without necessarily understanding why. But while other Friday Night Tykes coaches torment their young charges out of misguided NFL mimicry or to inflate their own power and self-worth, the Outlaws at least ground their behavior in something larger: their own lives and the lives of the players.
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.”
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.