I’m not especially good with children—just ask mine—but I sympathize with them. I know how kids feel when I talk to them, because I feel the same way whenever I talk to anyone: petrified and resentful and certain that nothing good will come of the conversation. Being an anxious, hyper-critical adult allows me the pleasure of reliving the mute frustration of childhood and the ache of the please-may-I-go-now smile on a regular basis.
So the Esquire Network’s new documentary show Friday Night Tykes contains much that is deeply familiar to me. There are a lot of frightened, angry children on the show. And the most furious and bewildered of them are in their 30s and 40s.
“I could care less if they cry.”
“Emotion is a female trait; don’t bring that out here.”
“Rip their freaking head off and make them bleed.”
Thus speak the coaches of the Texas Youth Football Association, teaching their waist-high platoons of 8- and 9-year-olds valuable life lessons like how to spear tackle and intimidate through intentional fouls. In the weeks since the show’s premiere, the coaches, league officials, and parents of the TYFA have been roundly condemned by such disparate cultural arbiters as Gawker, ESPN, the NFL, the Daily Beast, and neuropsychologist Dr. Rosemarie Scolaro Moser, director of the Sports Concussion Center of New Jersey. Everyone agrees that the behavior depicted on the show is “depraved.” It’s child abuse. The coaches are monsters (at least two of them have been suspended since the series began airing). The kids are victims. The parents are enablers.
Even I find the show painful to watch. Most of the kids’ bodies still look fragile and undeveloped, their arms and legs resembling temporary scaffolding. When they collide with the hollow crunch of pint-sized mountain goats, any normal person would wince. The helmet-to-helmet and helmet-to-ground collisions are especially hard to witness. Childhood is painful enough without head trauma.
On the other hand, I’ve known plenty of kids who honestly enjoyed running into each other full tilt, and didn’t seem to suffer much harm from it. I also know how hard it can be to keep kids like that entertained. If they can’t play football, they’re likely to load each other into a wheeled recycling bin and crash it into a concrete retaining wall for hours on end (don’t ask me how I know this).
Apart from the potential for catastrophic injury, what seems to disturb critics of the show most is the belief, voiced by TYFA parents and coaches, that the punishing hits, brutal workouts, and stress of competition are good for the kids; that this teaches them how to succeed in life. I heard that message a lot as a child. I discounted 90% of it (that’s how you survive a Texas childhood), but I remember finding some value in it too; the value of that rare adult who for once wasn’t bullshitting you about what life held; the value of an honest answer that let you at least get on with the task of whatever suffering you were going to have to endure that day, whether it was running laps or being hit by dodge balls hurled with devastating accuracy by kids twice your size.
“You can’t do what you want to do on this field,” Outlaws coach Tony Coley tells a sniffling player. “You can’t do what you want to do in life.” Yes: What an asshole. But also: Is he lying?
Perhaps my memories of childhood are skewed by nostalgia, or Stockholm Syndrome, but I oscillate between adult and kid perspectives when I watch Friday Night Tykes. I’m not sure what to think about it. My friend Carmel, a therapist with two sons of her own, has no such doubts. She was appalled by the coaches’ repeated exhortations to ignore pain and obtain goals by force. “Telling an eight-year-old boy ‘I don’t care how much pain you’re in’ is a terrible lesson,” she pointed out. “Teaching him that he shouldn’t care about other people’s pain and suffering is just as bad.”
Developmentally, she tells me, eight-year-old kids are not well equipped to filter out adult hyperbole. They’re going to take much of what they hear at face value. And eight- and nine-year-olds are at a critical age for learning empathy. If they don’t build an empathetic awareness of other’s feelings by that age—or if their developing empathy is squelched by the adults around them—they may lack that trait their entire lives. If you have any doubt how assault and rape are normalized in our culture, Carmel said, look no further. This is where we’re teaching it to them.
I see her point. “I don’t care how much pain you’re in, you don’t quit!” bellows Charles Chavarria, the former Marine who coaches the Junior Broncos. He is a man fighting numerous demons; his marriage is shaky and his players’ parents develop a mutinous attitude as the season progresses with no victories.
“If you don’t push your kids, you’re accepting failure,” Chavarria maintains. “You’re enabling your kid to fail.” This is the assumption underlying his coaching strategy and, it appears, his entire life. “If you allow them to quit on the football field, it’s gonna be OK to quit in the classroom, to quit on jobs, to quit on life.” Letting a player stop training just because he’s projectile vomiting through his facemask would “weaken the kid,” a cardinal sin in Chavarria’s ethos.
It’s an extreme attitude, even by the standards of Texas and cable television. And yet, empathy isn’t wholly absent from the show. One episode features a touching moment where Colts head coach Marecus Goodloe helps an autistic player score a touchdown. “I’m going out there with you so I can protect you,” he tells the boy, who is daunted by the prospect of being tackled. “I promise they’re not going to touch you.” Goodloe runs next to the boy all the way down the field while the opposing team’s players (who have just been trounced 50-zip by Goodloe’s Colts) obligingly tumble to the ground to simulate a goal line pile-up.
Another scene follows Outlaws’ assistant coach Eric Nolden to his mentoring program, where he and a group of teenagers talk about bullying and leadership and the “things they need to be successful.” Mentoring the boys, Nolden says, “keeps me from going back to the kind of person I used to be”— one who, among other failings, spent some time in jail (in this context, the irony of his football team’s name appears to be lost on everyone).
Nolden is the same coach who says, in the show’s first episode, “We may be the most hated team in the league. We’re also the most feared team.” He is manifestly proud of this statement.
Be a leader, not a bully—but make the other teams fear you. Ignore your pain, because if you quit, it’s all over. To understand why the coaches of Friday Night Tykes would say these things, why they believe them, I think it helps to consider the opportunities available today for children and adults from a low-income background. Talk to anyone who grew up poor in San Antonio, where the series is filmed. There are lots; currently, almost one-quarter of the city’s residents under age 18 live below the poverty line. True, many of the families featured in Friday Night Tykes appear to lead comfortable suburban lives. But such comfort is often illusory. Those parents who manage to stake a claim in the increasingly hardscrabble lands of the middle class today face nail-biting anxiety about mortgages and jobs and retirement and college funds and healthcare. Their families’ security is precarious at best.
The coaches of Friday Night Tykes, and the parents who entrust their kids to them, aren’t just imagining a world where one failure can ruin your life. They’re tuned in to the reality of adulthood in 21st century America. Their experience tells them that there is no “real” world where you can rely on fair treatment. That world has largely vanished, though we still pay it lip service when there isn’t much money at stake.
Thus, while the activity on the show appears to focus on winning, that’s only a proximate goal. The life lessons being imparted have more to do with ruthlessness, endurance, sacrifice, power and submission. Depending on how you see the world, that could be entirely appropriate. Winning, after all, requires skill deployed within a set of rules. And rules don’t apply much in daily life any more. “Do well in school and you’ll get a job”? Sure, if by “job” you mean an unpaid internship. “Don’t cause trouble and you won’t get hurt”? Maybe, unless you’re a person of color who happens to anger a man with a gun.
Successful people no longer “win” anything in our culture. They take it. Take it, steal it, hack it, fuck it, pink slip it, bury it, break it, throw it away and buy another. You can’t afford another one? Steal it, dumbass. No one’s going to give it to you. Like Coach said: If you want it, you have to take it.
That attitude isn’t just guiding some out-of-control youth football program in Texas. It’s guiding our government, our financial institutions, and our corporations. It’s cutting funding for our schools. It’s trying to gut food stamps, unemployment, and Social Security. It’s letting our infrastructure rot. It’s minting money on charter schools and private prisons.
Which is why it’s now virtually impossible to make a living doing anything that involves caring—for people, or for the environment, or about things like art or culture. My friend Carmel is a good example, an experienced therapist who works with survivors of torture and other trauma—very specialized work of incalculable value to society. You might think work like that involves some measure of job security, or health insurance, or a retirement plan. You’d be wrong. Because who cares about torture victims? Torture victims don’t buy iPhones or triple lattes. They don’t lease luxury cars or take packaged vacation tours. It’s hard to make a dollar off a torture victim.
Or consider my friend Amy, who recently completed her Master’s degree in Social Work. For her senior field placement, she worked at an organization that counsels former violent offenders on anger management and other issues that make it difficult for them to stay out of prison. She’s good at this work; she knows a lot about it and is an endlessly compassionate and thoughtful person. But she could not, when she graduated, find a full-time job as a social worker that paid a living wage. This despite living in Chicago, a city of 2.7 million which has, as you may have heard, a non-trivial problem with violent crime.
The reason Amy is now working for a software company, rather than helping to keep ex-offenders from harming the citizens of Chicago, is the same reason ex-offender Eric Nolden and the other coaches on Friday Night Tykes are teaching 8-year-olds to intimidate their peers in a recreational sports league: There is no money in compassion. Keeping people out of prison is volunteer work—that is, it’s work for chumps. Reducing crime in our communities may benefit society, but no venture capitalist or corporation makes a measureable profit off of it. Putting people into prison—that’s where the money’s at.
So if you want to get a degree in Social Work? Fine, whatever. Plenty of schools will take your tuition money; hell, we’ll even lend it to you, and you can spend a couple of decades paying it back with interest. You want to make a living wage after you graduate? Fuck you, loser. Go back and get an MBA. If you can help a global corporation sell more burgers, you might be worthy of a decent living. Otherwise, you flip burgers for minimum wage, and raise your kids in poverty.
The coaches on Friday Night Tykes are undeniably dedicated; some of them have real talent, and a lot of them seem, to me anyway, positively warmhearted. (Granted, your ability to detect this quality may depend on how much practice you’ve had tuning out profanity and casual whacks on the head. I’ve had lots.)
So why are they doing this? Why would a coach claim that “this organization is pretty much everything I have”? Or break up his family over a perceived moral obligation to triumph at peewee football? Why would they arrange their lives around the opportunity to drill complicated plays into the minds of 2nd graders, a frustrating endeavor at best? Why put up with the demands and complaints of the parents? Are these men really just petty tyrants basking in the low-wattage admiration of youth sports?
Before we write off Charles Chavarria and Marecus Goodloe and the other coaches of Friday Night Tykes as monsters and abusers, we might ask: If they didn’t do this, what else could they do? There aren’t a whole lot of ways for men to gain respect and status these days, or to see their work result in something rewarding. We don’t provide many opportunities, outside the military, for people to lead, or teach, or mentor. There’s plenty of work like that that needs doing, but it doesn’t line anyone’s pockets. So to hell with it.
The culture documented on Friday Night Tykes is distressing to viewers because it reflects the conflict between basic survival instincts that our lives are now reduced to. The urge to care, to empathize, to help and nurture, is being ground into the dirt by the fear of failure and poverty and meaninglessness.
A lot of adults these days are privately terrified of the cruelty out there. We recognize that there’s no margin for error. No safety net; no one who cares; no one who will help us ward off the hostile forces we face. It’s like being a helpless child all over again—only now, we’re trying to equip our own kids to succeed, somehow, in this mean and sleazy game. Is teaching them to care really the responsible thing to do, under those circumstances? Teaching them to shake off pain and to seize every advantage might give them a better chance.
“We pray before every single game, " says Outlaws coach Fred Davis, “that no players will be hurt. You know, we don’t want any hurt, harm or danger to come to any of those kids. But we’re gonna bust their damn heads as much as we can during the game to let them know, that this is football.”
This is football. And yet it would be a shame if football took all the blame here. Because I disagree with Carmel on this: The valorization of force and the drive to dominate at all costs don’t start on the youth football fields of America. That’s just where everything ends, as those values descend with crushing force on the helmets of the next generation. The football field is where the final deed is done, but it’s premeditated in legislative chambers and boardrooms, and the warrant is signed by men with much, much more power than mere coaches.
It’s disturbing to think that the kids on Friday Night Tykes are being abused by a bunch of deluded adults who believe their sadistic treatment prepares the kids to succeed in life. It’s even more disturbing to consider that they may be right.