“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.