I didn't watch the first season of Friday Night Tykes, a documentary series chronicling the ultra-competitive Texas Youth Football Association (TYFA). I had heard about it—the intensity, the injuries, the cussing—but I figured that having seen Dance Moms with my 10-year-old daughter, it would be a testosterone-fueled version of that popular reality show. Boy, was I wrong.
The 20-minute preview of the second season, which begins tonight on Esquire Network, is like nothing you've ever seen before (even if, like me, you are a sports parent who has coached your kid for years). It depicts 10- and 11-year-olds being put through a training regimen that puts many high school athletes to shame. They complete endless tackling drills in searing heat, in which the object is to hurl your teammate to the ground. As a 10-year-old lies on the ground in agony, a coach tells him, "If you can't play with pain, you're in the wrong sport." Another says having feelings is a "girl thing" that has no place on the gridiron.
During a game, one coach removes a center that has made two errant snaps and yells, "What the f--- are you doing?" I quickly lost count of the number of curses, but I can tell you that the coaches hurl expletives at their players, the referees, and each other with alarming regularity. It paints a brutal picture—of the state of youth sports in America; of the parents who allow their kids to be verbally harangued and put them at risk of serious injury (not to mention burnout) in pursuit of a long term, long-shot college or NFL dream; of the well-meaning but sometimes misguided coaches, who push these young kids so hard to win at all costs.
And yet, at the post-screening forum, I was surprised by the muted reaction of the panelists, including ex-NFL stars Tiki Barber (now a CBS sports radio host) and Bart Scott (now an NFL analyst) as well as psychotherapist Robi Ludwig, Psy.D. All agreed that the footage was difficult to watch at times. The show's executive producer Matt Maranz, said the show is designed to provoke debate on "how far is too far, how young is to young, to push kids." But when the moderator, ESPN commentator Jeremy Schaap, asked if the footage amounted to child abuse, all three replied no.
Barber conceded that the use of profanity around kids this age is wrong, and that coaches should keep in mind that not everyone—even highly motivated young athletes—responds best to yelling. Dr. Ludwig, though, pointed out that the coaches were likely revisiting the methods they had experienced when they were players, and that despite their hard words they truly meant the best for the children in their charge.
As far as the safety of having kids participate in full-contact drills and play tackle football as early as age 7 (as they do in the TYFA), opinion was divided. Schaap pointed to research suggesting that concussions are particular dangerous to young children, whose skulls are thinner and more vulnerable than those over age 12. Barber, whose 12-year-old has already suffered a concussion, supports his son's right to play. "The key is educating him and making sure he follows the proper protocol if he has a head injury," Barber says.
Scott, who in the past had said he wouldn't want his child playing football due to the risks, now coaches his 7-year-old. "Once he decided to play, I knew he would be safer if I taught him the proper technique for tackling and falling so he doesn't get hurt," says Scott.
Scott and Barber were both playing pee-wee football by age 9, so neither is shocked by the physical nature of the youth game depicted in the series. Scott, who grew up in a tough neighborhood in Detroit, believes the backlash against the show is due in part to the fact that American kids today are too soft. "They need to learn how to work hard and push the limits," he says. "And I like that this league doesn't give everyone a trophy or make sure they get equal playing time. You earn it on the playing field."
Scott makes a valid point about our "everyone's a winner" mentality. I can't say I agree that grade-schoolers are ready to work out 'till they vomit or to be instructed by a coach before a game to "rip their freakin' head off and let them bleed." But I do recommend you tune in and make your own judgments. It's riveting TV, even if you often need to cover your eyes.
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Photo courtesy of Esquire TV