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.