Trouble with ‘Friday Night Tykes’
Trouble with ‘Friday Night Tykes’
The sound of one child’s football helmet smashing into another’s is a horrible, jarring clang and crunch, made all the worse because the children are so small, and the poor kid who comes off worse goes in a split second from lightning-fast scamper to hitting the ground like a stone.
We saw that awful image in the first episode of the deceptively joshingly-titled Friday Night Tykes, about a collection of San Antonio teams in the Texas Youth Football Association (TYFA) and the demented coaches who train them.
The Esquire Network documentary series features 8- and 9-year-old boys used as exocet missiles and mini-fighting machines by a group of coaches, bizarrely and ragefully under the impression that they are training would-be assassins, rather than young children the art of team sports.
“You have the opportunity to rip their freaking head off and let them bleed,” roars one. “Don’t give me that soft crap. You gonna let them hurt you? I couldn’t care less if they cry.” The justification for this verbal abuse seems to be that the children benefit from strong leadership and would become better students and adults for it.
It is inevitable Friday Night Tykes has become controversy catnip: “Reality TV has submerged to profound depths,” said one author in the Huffington Post. “The trailer is definitely troubling to watch,” an NFL spokesman said before it had even begun, adding that TYFA was not part of its Heads Up Football Program, which aims to improve player safety in youth football. Esquire said the show was intended to be informative.
In fact, Friday Night Tykes is a show with a terrible title—and yes, extreme and disturbing sequences of children being yelled at—concealing a worthwhile, even responsible mission. It features parents, often conflicted about what their children are doing. The series, far more than the exploitative reality shows it has become bracketed with, is a portrait of family and community life, of parenting, childhood, masculinity and—something no critic has mentioned—it is beautifully directed and produced.
The material may in places be sensational, and the program-makers major heavily on the coaches’ verbal outbursts, but it looks like Fellini next to Dance Moms and Bad Girls’ Club—the children play against streaky sunsets and in the inky dark—and is notable for asking difficult questions of its subjects. Three episodes in and Friday Night Tykes, regardless of the outrage around it, is that rare thing: a nuanced, even challenging reality show.
Still, all these niceties logged, there is no getting away from the crazy coaches and poor kids. “Quit crying, there’s no reason to cry,” one youngster is instructed in the first episode. We see the children run, weep, and perspire with horribly reddened faces in their bulky kit concealing gawky bodies, and they seem understandably cowed by their monster-commanders. “Oh my legs,” another weeps as he is forced to maneuver himself, crab-like, across a field in the near-100-degree heat. “I don’t care how much pain you’re in,” his coach screams at him.
One team, the Outlaws, features not just fearsome coaches like Tony Coley who tells his kids to knock their opponents in the head, but Tamaira Hayes, mother of Tamari, who says: “When your kid looks bad, you look bad.” As her son tries to tackle another player, she curls her lip in disdain at the effort: “That wasn’t good.” Her abuse of rival teams is so unpleasant even the Outlaws coaches take her to task.