I’ve often said that in many ways the hyper-masculinity of youth (tackle) football– especially in the South– is the analog to the hyper-femininity of child beauty pageants. Esquire TV’s controversial series Friday Night Tykes proves it. The 10-episode series, plus a review and discussion show called Tackling Tykes that does a great job summarizing the season and discussing the serious issues it raised, follows five teams of 8-9-year-old boys in Texas. The boys are taught to swear, to injure others, to work so hard they vomit. We see disturbing images of kids unconscious on the field. These children are clearly susceptible to both long-term physical and psychological damage. Much more damage than what a spray tan causes I might add (not that I’m condoning that, just pointing out the reality).
The show has rightly caused a firestorm, which already resulted in the suspension of two coaches, one of whom was suspended for a whole season. That coach, Charles Chavarria, is one of the most disturbing people portrayed on the show— and basically that I’ve seen who works with kids. I think the man actually thinks he is coaching an NFL team. He sacrificed his family (and sometimes it seemed his sanity and happiness) to coach kids who he thought were “losers.” This man is one reason why those who work with children need to be certified.
Chavarria accuses TYFA (the league that organizes competition for independently owned and operated football clubs) of not offering enough coach training. I was surprised how many of the head and assistant coaches were parents because in my research I found that many serious pay-to-play leagues have moved away from this model to avoid conflict of interest and establish some credibility with respect to coaching and training methods. It’s unclear, but seems to be the case, that these are actually volunteer positions– which makes Chavarria, who doesn’t even have kids this age playing, all the more dumbfounding. Parents are clearly getting involved in the hopes of encouraging coaches to play their own child more, explicitly the case with the momager of Chavarria’s team, basically the only women in any position of “authority” shown on the program.
Many of the issues that are highlighted in the show are ones I discuss in Playing to Win, especially in Chapter 5 on the business of competitive afterschool activities. These include parents/coaches lying about the age of children leading to verification sessions, recruiting violations by coaches, and disputes over participation trophies. Even statements made by parents and coaches on the show echo direct quotes from the book– like if you want to raise kids to be winners or losers. So if you want more on how and why we got to this system, please read the book.
The best episode was by far the reunion, mainly because (and I say this as someone who watches every reality show and doc on subjects like this), the series was poorly produced. Many episodes were repetitive, some concentrated too much on tangential issues and not enough on the main story arc. Too many teams and “characters” were introduced and they were was almost too much crazy and not enough fun, sane families (basically only one was shown giving their child, who is clearly talented, any sense of balance in terms of school and family). The reunion highlighted major issues like injuries, identity formation, and long-term prospects for these kids. I loved that they brought in experts and successful NFL coaches and players to say that this system is pretty broken and doesn’t even necessarily produce successful high school, college, or pro players.
The sociologist in me does think that missing from the reunion show was a discussion of race, class, and gender. The class issue was referred to once during the regular series, saying the kids on a particular team didn’t live in the “soft” gated communities. Some of the coaches talk about previous brushes with the law, which was another oblique reference. Most of the kids and coaches shown are African-American. And they basically only show men. I’d love to see more of these issues addressed and hear what people on the ground think of them and how football is segregating people by positions, sport, and future development in the U.S. today.
Since there will be a Season 2, there’s still time to explore these complicated but important angles. I do think there is something different about youth tackle football than many other activities at this age, but the broader issues are emblematic of what is going on not only in youth sports but also in afterschool activities. So, for instance, if you’re looking to get your extreme parenting fix now that Toddlers & Tiaras has been cancelled, look out for the next season of Friday Night Tykes…