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.
Elsewhere, Marecus Goodloe, of the Colts, leads his 8- and 9-year-olds in a chorus of “Fuck The Rockets,” before playing a rival team. “We’re gonna beat the shit out of you,” he crows proudly. Tony Coley of the Outlaws insists, “Some kids need a kick in the butt, some need a pat on the butt, we know the difference.” That sounds reasonable, until Coley is later seen telling his hurt son to “fucking stop your crying.” Eric Nolden, a coach with the Outlaws, tells the boys: “Emotions are a female trait. This is a man’s sport.” The coaches’ attitudes and how they express themselves have yet to be fully interrogated.
Of all the coaches, the one who forces you to lower the volume on the remote most is Charles Chavarria, of the Jr. Broncos. As he screams in the faces of the boys, Lisa Connell, the mother of one team-member who helps run things, says his shouting makes her feel uncomfortable—but she wants the team to win and this is the way to achieve that. We watch her ferry a carload of children to school, work full-time, then pick the children up, make dinner, then get her son to practice, and look after all his teammates in her role as “mom-ager.”
The directors find odd profundity on the touchline. Gloria and Kinton Armmer are forced to watch their son Jaden run endless circuits of the field as his coaches judge him to be too out of shape to participate in the game. Whatever objection he has—“I don’t feel so good, I’m going to pass out”—is ignored. They are gentle with him, very loving, but focused on his excelling at football.
“We’re going to kick the crap out of them,” Chavarria bellows at his young charges before one game. “I don’t care if they cry.” And more: “You need to smash that frigging kid. I want him on the floor. You’ve got to smash his head.” Chavarria says he was taught to be upset when going on to a football field—anger has always been his motivating force. But when the Broncos lose a game, Chavarria is himself left crying: “Today was the biggest day of my life, and it didn’t work to the expectation of what I wanted it to.” One lost game and he seems as bereft and broken as Willy Loman.
Not all the coaches seem like bug-eyed lunatics. Keith Dyson, president of the Judson Junior Rockets, provides the series’ unintentional comic value, claiming stoutly never to allow what Internet message boards say affect him. But after reading online criticism that he is a joke, he fulminates against such abuse, perpetrated by “morons.” The viewer feels most outraged on his behalf because he keeps a spotless pitch, and for home games emblazons the grass proudly with his team’s red and white crest. But the opposition regularly leaves litter under his bleachers, which outraged this viewer as much as him.
In Tuesday night’s third episode the program-makers addressed the fear and experience of injury among the boys playing the game. This came as a belatedly somber coda to the two preceding episodes, in which the coaches screamed themselves hoarse encouraging their young players to do as much physical damage to their opponents as possible.
Andrew and Shakia Goss said their rule had been if one of their children had suffered three concussions, then he was to stop playing football. After one game, their son Donte had suffered such a serious head injury that Shakia said he had told her in the hospital, “I do not know who you are. Please leave me alone.” That had upset her, she wept, and Donte is still recovering.
His little brother was playing the game, though. “You can’t blame football,” insisted Andrew, the boys’ father, which was an astonishing thing to hear for this viewer. “Kids hurt themselves all the time. It’s just an unfortunate thing that happened.”
In another household, Kevin Brashears struggled with his words as he tried to tell his mother Margie and father Brian (another coach) why he was nervous about playing in the following day’s game. “I don’t want to get really hurt … injured,” the poor boy said falteringly, to no avail. The next day he was playing as another boy was felled. Brian rushed on to the pitch, panic in his voice. “He’s hurt, he’s hurt!” But the boy got up. He seemed OK.
In Tuesday night’s episode, the team with the most abusive, in-your-face coaches soundly beat their more genially-coached rivals. There’s a depressing lesson there probably, but before we learn it, can we recommend that coach Chavarria enjoys a spa day?