Friday Night Tykes is not the kind of public relations boost the NFL needs right now. The Esquire documentary series follows five Texas Youth Football Association (TYFA) teams competing in the Rookie division (8- to 9-year-olds) around San Antonio, Texas. It doesn’t focus much at all on the titular kids on the teams. Even shows like Toddlers In Tiaras give the kids a chance to talk for themselves, but Tykes focuses mostly on the storylines of the adults in charge. It’s a sociological examination of how far adults will go to have leadership control over a sport that has woven into the fabric of American identity. Friday Night Tykes can be horrifying and fascinating in equal measure, depicting parents who believe football will teach their children the value of hard work and determination, but cede total authority to militaristic coaches who yell profusely at eight-year-olds to rip other kids’ heads off and make them bleed and cry. Kids smashing helmet first into each other during tackling drills while coaches egg them on should be the lasting image of the premiere. That focus is exactly what could diminish the player pool when combined with all the data pouring in on the severity of head injuries linked to the sport.
At first, the series sets up the five different teams the documentary crew will follow for the fall 2013 season. The Judson Junior Rockets have a President who beams when he proudly notes that the organization—yes, the same rhetoric that an NFL GM or an NCAA athletic director would use when discussing upgraded facilities—spent $16,000 on new Rookie division equipment for the upcoming season. The Northeast Colts, a rival team that also uses Judson’s immactuately manicured home field, lost in the championship the previous season. Their charismatic coach—his players like him, but he’s a youth league Jim Harbaugh to other teams—has his sights set on demolishing rivals and steamrolling all opponents with a “title or bust” mentality. The Broncos have a former Marine for a coach, and a “momager” (not a manager) desperate to get her son playing time. The Outlaws are the “other side of the tracks” team practicing on sparse grass instead of a meticulously manicured field—think the East Dillon Panthers from Friday Night Lights. And the Predators, well, the coach’s son is the quarterback.
The cameras show up during preseason registration and practice, observe specific players at home, and then cover games—albeit with a distracting and unnecessary voiceover from a local radio personality. The structure of the series is designed to show that for these people in this area of the country, even the lowest level of organized football can be imbued with ultra-serious competition, drained of all fun unless it involves throttling an opposing and doing a touchdown dance on their logo. More than one coach brags about the complexity of offensive schemes implemented for the season, comparing them to top-level NCAA programs or NFL plays. If it seems like too much, an adult is always there to mention how serious the people of Texas take football. It’s the biggest football talent pool in the country, sending the most players and the most highly rated players to college and the NFL. To the state culture, it’s more than a cottage industry: it’s a way of life, and Friday Night Tykes captures how the seeds of that obessesion are resown into new players.
Most of the featured adults do not have kids on their own team, but coach out of sheer passion and desire to win. The Colts’ coach says that his more than 10 years at the helm of a team of 8-year-olds is “all I have.” The way the documentary frames it, these men treat TYFA as another form of fantasy football, one where a coach has unquestioned authority over children provided the team wins. Coaches can tell a player to spend an entire practice running back and forth between a fence and the water cooler—as punishment for a summer vacation to visit family in Indiana. The coach of the Broncos makes only one brief case for his behavior. He justifies relentlessly berating children by saying that if he allowed them to quit—after, for example, vomiting all over the field—they would learn a tactic for getting out of hard work. That seed would grow into entrenched laziness for the rest of a child’s life.
There are less cruel and punishing ways to teach these lessons, but the coaches in Tykes view this as the way to teach boys to toughen up into real men at eight years old—an incredibly reductive definition of masculinity—is to crash into each other with their heads. Chicago Bears receiver Brandon Marshall spoke out this year in response to the Jonathan Martin scandal with the Miami Dolphins, discussing locker room culture and the different ways American raise boys and girls. His most perceptive observation is about how boys aren’t allowed to show vulnerability or emotion. That sentiment echoes during an Outlaws practice, when a coach bellows, “Emotion is a female trait. This is a man’s sport!” Whenever an adult promotes a warlike attitude toward football, Friday Night Tykes emphasizes that these are 8- and 9-year-old players. The adults care so much it’s frightening.
The first two episodes cover roughly the first two weeks of the season in September 2013, and after only a few losses, some teams fly into disarray. Tellingly, none of the parents seem upset at the coaches’ tactics or penchant for war metaphors; they’re more concerned about a change at the top as a way of righting the ship and making the playoffs. Winning is everything, and the emphasis on football as a way to teach life’s most important lessons to young boys shows that youth football, especially in places like Texas that put a premium on the sport, will staunchly resist a cultural change. Any place where a 3-year-old child who looks big for his age receives attention from youth league football recruiters—like a “star” offensive lineman on the Colts—or has teams coming off probation for illegal recruiting at the Rookie level, is investing too much in the sport.
According to these parents and coaches, the “everyone gets a trophy” mentality teaches weakness. But from the footage captured for Friday Night Tykes,the “nobody gets a chance to learn” model is equally flawed, prematurely favoring kids and influencing self-image before they have a change to physically develop. Friday Night Tykes only captures the voices of the parents, coaches, and TYFA officals, letting their words and actions demonstrate how pervasive and dangerous this attitude can be even as the NFL spends a lot of money trying to educate poor tactics out of the game at a youth level. Instead of treating youth leagues as a place where kids can learn how to play a sport along with the values of sportsmanship, Tykes depicts that for these TYFA teams in San Antonio, winning at all costs is paramount, even in the first year of competitive organized football.
Borrowing editing and preview ploys from elsewhere in reality television, Friday Night Tykes emphasizes the shock value of egotistical coaches and the pervasive violence of football. It’s not concerned with examining root causes or the future impact of the yelling coaches and treating kids like NFL players, nor in tracking its players for years in order to create a complete portrait of the system’s full consequences. It’s not Hoop Dreams. But it suggests that there is a compelling case to be made about the sociological impact of football on youth players. These players are taught to dream that they could move on from TYFA Rookie level to play big time high school football. The Judson Junior Rockets watch the Judson High School varsity team, and the team president narrates the dream of being on the big field, on a team that has more titles than any other school in San Antonio. The NFL has been working overtime in order to shift the perception of the league from inherently dangerous violence to a culture that can ensure safety, but this series shows that the physical dangers of the sport are only part of the potential harm done. Friday Night Tykes isn’t hard-hitting journalism, nor a fully investigative portrait of players, but it’s an enlightening glimpse into what has trickled down from the professional level of a massively popular sport to the youngest players.
- At one point the Broncos coach says that the rough preseason practices will “separate the boys from the men,” completely oblivious to the fact that the nine-year-olds on the field aren’t even close to being men. That kind of contradictory humor is one of a handful of humourous moments of levity.
- The Colts coach gets his team of 8-year-olds to yell “Fuck the Rockets” while practicing for a game against their rivals.
- The coaches seem unfettered by the upswing in information about head injuries, until one of their players goes down. They willfully ignore the dangers of the sport, but brush it off with military metaphors as though they can’t go into battle if they think about the consequences. The military comparison to football culture is one of the most popular sports metaphors, and Friday Night Tykes shows the nadir.
- Future episodes of the series show the President of the Rockets going through message boards to read criticism of his decisions, and the coach of the Predators running on the field after his son gets hurt from a helmet-to-helmet collision, and Tykes previews those moments in standard “shocking” reality show previews.
- That chart of scholarship football players by state can be overwhelming, but it’s not a per capita breakdown. By that measure, Louisiana and Alabama take the top two rankings, with Hawaii in the top five.