Tuned In

Teary Eyes, Small Hearts: The Kid-Sports Horror Show of Friday Night Tykes

Esquire's disturbing docuseries shows eight-year-olds in Texas suffering for football glory—and the dreams and anxieties of the adults who put them out there.

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Walter Looss/Esquire Network

“Mama, mama can’t you see / What the Broncos done to me?” –team chant of the Jr. Broncos, Texas Youth Football Association

On Sunday, America will celebrate its largest communal sacrament, the Super Bowl. Even as most of our mass-media rituals have gotten smaller, the big game has stayed big and become even bigger business. But the sport of football has become publicly troubled lately, with controversy and litigation over concussions, questions about what the game is doing to players, and doubts about whether the practice and culture of the game can be fixed. You can employ technology and education, but the expectation that brutal hits and bodily sacrifice are part of the game–a noble, character-building thing, even–start early.

How early? That’s the subject of Esquire’s worthwhile but disturbing docuseries Friday Night Tykes (Tuesdays, 9 p.m. ET), where kids on the proudly “competitive” TYFA league in San Antonio run sprints in the blazing sun until they cry and throw up, where they get told “I don’t care how much pain you’re in, you don’t quit!” and where they take coaching orders like “I want you to put it in his helmet. I don’t care if he don’t get up.”

All at eight or nine years old.

Like Toddlers and Tiaras or Dance Moms, this series about competitive kids comes with a creepy feeling of complicity, with the added realization that we are watching kids risking more than just their self-esteem. But while FNT is depicting something ugly, if not downright abusive, it’s not celebrating it. It’s shot cinema verité, no head-shaking narration, which allows it to present a more rounded, multidimensional picture of what can lead a group of grown-ups to believe they’re putting tiny kids through misery for their own good. And it lets the brutal hits ring out clearly, as well as the brutal message.

The first message: TYFA’s kids are not here to play, they’re here to win. That means, for the several teams FNT follows through the season, maybe you sign up and never get to play. It means, if you do play, your coach screaming at you, “Let’s rip some freakin’ Outlaw head off!” It means your coach telling you not to go tattling to your parents if you get hurt or picked on in practice–“Ain’t nobody scared of none of y’all’s parents!”–because you’ve got to “cut the umbilical cord,” even though you’re eight years old.

But FNT spends too much time with the grown-ups to let us see any of them as plain monsters. Yes, there are coaches here who seem to be living out their frustrated dreams of coaching high school or college ball. (Jr. Broncos coach Charles, one of the most bellicose team leaders, is clearly filling some kind of hole with football; we learn, several episodes in, that he’s spent so much time coaching, even after his own kids aged out, that he’s not seeing his family and is putting a strain on his marriage.) There are coaches rationalizing, or possibly encouraging, dangerous tackles. There are belligerent parents rushing the field and swearing at referees.

But these same adults, in whatever misguided way, also believe they’re giving kids tools they won’t get anywhere else. We meet the Outlaws, a team that has a notorious reputation for rough play–even for the TYFA–but that also deals with being labeled the league’s “ghetto” team, even though there are multiracial  rosters throughout the league. (In tonight’s episode, when some Bronco parents rush the field to protest a call, an Outlaw coach complains that if his kids’ parents did that, “They’d call in the Air Force.”) We meet Lisa, the Broncos’ “momager”–mom manager–who tells us she wants to get her son out of the “Everybody gets a trophy” atmosphere of other leagues. (“Just hit ‘em hard” is one of the first things we hear her tell him.) But just as we start to see her as another out-of-control sports parent–the kind HBO recently profiled in its chilling Peter Berg documentary Trophy Kids–we see her challenge Charles to remember that players he’s driving so hard are still little kids.

“Yeah, but that’s our mindset,” Charles says. “If we allow them to keep making excuses, that they’re just eight-year-olds–they’re not eight-year-olds! They’re growing boys!” FNT shows you enough to see the disconnect from reality–Charles can literally talk himself out of seeing his players as eight-year-olds–while inviting us to wonder how an entire community of grown-ups can adopt essentially the same perspective.

So why do they do it? In part, there’s the longstanding, Texas-sized culture of football, as we saw in FNT‘s forebear Friday Night Lights (both the nonfiction and fiction versions). One father recalls his son, Jaden–a “gentle giant”–getting recruited for future league football at a birthday party when he was three years old. There are some ugly ideas about what it means to be a man, and not just among the men; one coach talks about a mother telling him she wanted her son on the team because, she said, “I don’t want him to be a pussy.” Surprisingly, there’s not much talk of parents fantasizing that their kids will end up football stars, so much as hoping they leave TYFA able to take helmet shots in the gut from life.

There’s also a vague, generalized fear of falling underlying the whole operation here. Fear that the world is hard and only hard people thrive in it. That our kids are coddled and soft and can’t compete. That we are falling behind as a country. That patterns of weakness and failure are established early in life; you fall behind and you stay behind. “If it’s OK to quit on the field,” a coach says of his eight- and nine-year-olds, “it’ll be OK to quit in the classroom, to quit in life.” The unspoken fear–or spoken, in the case of one coach who has lost his military-contractor job–is that there is no middle ground left in the grown-up world. You win, or you fail.

But from where FNT‘s cameras are sitting, it looks a lot more like football is failing these kids, at least as it’s played on these teams. They’re child soldiers right here in America; they’re being taught not a game but a philosophy of life where respect is earned through suffering and success means hitting the other guy before he hits you. Four quarters at a time, they’re playing out the projected anxieties and frustrations of the adults on the sidelines–well-meaning or not–at clear risk to their developing bodies. As Charles tells us more than once: “Pain is weakness leaving the body.”

Weakness, or maybe childhood.

11 comments
sstrickland17
sstrickland17

The coaches of the Outlaws remind me of the name of their team.  To actually tell their players to physically hurt #28, to the point that he is taken out of the game, and his parents feel it is just sick!!!@!!! This would have been a good law suite waiting to happen. These coaches make real coaches, that deserve respect look bad. These coaches are fat, disgusting and should be kicked out of Texas. Low class outlaws is what you are.

LukeBuczek
LukeBuczek

I'm a 27 year old college coach. I have also coached at the high school level. What these coaches from Friday Night Tykes are demonstrating is NOT indicative of the overall football culture if this country. Football has taught me many important life lessons, lessons I have tried to instill in the players I now coach. Our players know the risk of the game and choose to participate because it builds character, life skills, and they genuinely love the game. Don't let the idiots from the show fool you. Not every coach treats their players in this manner. I'm a college coach and we don't treat our players like this. We didn't when I coached at the varsity level in high school, either. And we I've always been a part of winning programs. These tactics border more on abuse and these helicopter dad's are not real coaches, and are obviously filling voids from their own failed athletic careers. The coaches from the Broncos and Outlaws are especially pathetic. Don't let idiots like this drive you away from the game of football. When taught and played correctly, football is fun and rewarding activity to participate in for all ages.  

AnothaTexan
AnothaTexan

I survived Texas youth football.  Are FNT coaches the extreme and not the norm? yes.

Am I a better person for having played.  yes.  In fact I went on to a semi-professional athletic career in another sport.

Would I do it again.  Why yes.  In fact I am a youth coach today.  6 to 9 year old's too.  And I listen to this feminist crap day after day, "winning isn't everything"....  "winning doesn't matter"...  yada yada....  parents who are quitters teaching kids to be quitters...  pretty sad what America has become.

vrcplou
vrcplou

I was so, so grateful when my son showed no aptitude nor interest in sports.  We live in Texas and the short time he spent in "pee-wee" baseball and soccer was enough to put me off youth sports forever.

cannibalofthetrees
cannibalofthetrees

Sounds like somebody is still waiting for their umbilical cord to detach. Maybe the author should have played football where there are winners and losers, instead of everybody getting a trophy. It's football! Grow up, or stay home and play soccer.

yesisaidit
yesisaidit

@AnothaTexan why would you refer to that as "feminist crap" when many men AND women believe, as you say, "winning isn't everything?" I am not saying I disagree entirely with what you are intending to say, but the fact that you used the word feminist as the descriptor says a lot about you and takes merit away from your point. 

bryanfred1
bryanfred1

@vrcplou My 11 year-old plays youth football in Texas and I can tell you that the vast majority of parents and coaches are nothing like this.  Behavior around baseball is actually worse, believe it or not.

The issue with the coaches and parents of kids on the "ghetto" (to quote the article) teams is that many of them see sports as the best hope for their kids to have a future outside their current neighborhoods, and encourage their children to make hits that would get an NFL player ejected and fined.  The coach quoted in this article saying "put it in their earhole" should not be allowed anywhere near kids.  These parents won't be cheering when their kids break their necks or have permanent brain damage.

anon76
anon76

@cannibalofthetrees 


I played football through college- something the vast majority of the kids on FNT won't be able to say in 14 years.  The philosophy that the parents and coaches (and you, judging by your comment) are advocating in this show is abhorrent.  8 year old bodies are not ready for the kind of hitting and running-until-you-puke punishment that they're dishing out, nor is the 8 year old psyche ready for the kind of pressure these coaches are putting on them.  Playing the game in such a way doesn't separate the "winners" from the "losers".  It turns them all into losers, some that will fail in their parent's eyes and some that will lose their childhood to their parents' and coaches' misguided notions of fortitude.

Paul008
Paul008

@anon76  

Well said anon76. I played high school football and baseball and collegiate baseball and the one thing I've noticed is what seems to be the underlying problem here. That all these horrible coaches and parents are trying to relive their failed dreams through their 8 and 9 year old kids. And to be fair, this show just highlights the problem, however, it is present at any youth sport venue anywhere in America. Just sit at any league (i.e. soccer, football, baseball and yes, even dance and cheerleading) and you will see it for yourselves. As far as preparing them for life, that's B.S.! I doubt that Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Warren Buffett ever needed a coach like the JR Broncos idiot to succeed.