Friday Night Tykes is a 10-episode miniseries on Esquire’s new channel, following San Antonio Texas’ Youth Football Association. It chronicles the trials and tribulations of youth coaches, intensely hopeful parents, and the children they’re trying to turn into star athletes. There’s a good amount of talk about this show online, for reasons you can probably guess, based on the show’s description! I saw an ad for this and made a quick assessment: It’s another one of those shows where little kids are manipulated and pushed and worked to exhaustion by their parents to fulfill their (whose?) dreams. I wasn’t far off, but there may be something of value here after all.
Let’s get it out of the way, the show is horrifying. The furthest I got with organized sports was weekly soccer practice and weekend games, and I wasn’t in it to win it by any means. So, I don’t even know what serious practice looks like, but the shit they do to these boys is pretty awful.
One kid, Colby, whose tiger mom Lisa is the general manager of his team and has dubbed herself “Momager,” gets it bad in the first episode. Apparently, Lisa takes her responsibilities as momager seriously, as she refuses to cut her son any slack when he collapses during running drills and is forced by the coach to continue at a crawl. When Colby approaches, red, crying, and gagging, she pep talks him until he fucking barfs.
Like Toddlers & Tiaras, Dance Moms, and other shows about parents forcing kids to work for some highly competitive dream job, Friday Night Tykes frames itself as a look into the hearts and minds of dedicated people. Unlike those shows, though, Friday Night Tykes is extremely short. I think that’s one of the biggest divisions, and the show’s greatest strength over the others. This is good not only to spare us whole seasons of suffering children, but also to make its point quickly.
There’s definitely aspects of the show where it echoes the sentiments of the coaches, that this is just how greatness is made. Don’t cut corners. Don’t be soft. On the other hand, it doesn’t shy away from showing the unsavory side of youth football. And at this length, that means something. Toddlers & Tiaras and Dance Moms also include scenes of kids being mistreated, bad parenting, narcissism, and so on, but when the show’s gone on for 6 seasons, all that is just part of the backdrop for people behaving badly and being funny. When it’s not the point of the show, the mistreatment of children on display is adopted as a problem of the show itself. At this length, Friday Night Tykes is in a much stronger position to be regarded as a criticism of the football and coaching culture.
Like Colby, Jaden, the second boy followed in the first episode, faces abuse from his coach. After a month-long vacation with family, Jaden is punished by coach, who orders him to run sets for the entire practice session, and laughs with an assistant coach about running Jaden ragged. The boy doesn’t throw up, but he cries on the ride back home.
“We were at a birthday party, and…this coach walks up to me and shakes my hand and says, ‘Is that your boy?’ And he takes out a full-color, double-sided business card, and says ‘You need to call me.’ Jaden was three years old.”
Jaden’s dad, who looks like Rick Ross, says he was taken aback at this. But, “This is Texas.” It’s part of the culture. The show’s namesake, Friday Night Lights, is about a small Texas town whose raison d’etre is football. This isn’t just fiction — many towns, many schools and universities, are heavily supported by their football teams. It’s important to these places to build the best damn team they can. Combined with Texas’ love for football, there’s great demand for an organization like Texas Youth Football Association, whose goal is to produce aggressive, competitive football players, at the expense of fun, mercy, and childhood.
The backlash from this show has been pretty heavy. Esquire faces a lot of heat for producing it in the first place. The Texas Youth Football Association is losing allies left and right as the football coaching community seeks to distance itself from what looks to many viewers like child abuse. And just to be fair, the practices in the show are extreme and abnormal, at least for a kids’ league. But as a pretty non-sporty person, simply the idea of parents working their tiny kids to create tiny football players grosses me out. As everyone knows, getting to the NFL is like winning the lottery. And just like winning the lottery, many people don’t know how to handle such a huge get. 78 Percent of ex-NFL players are broke or in dire financial straits 2 years out of the game. Beyond the financial aspect, football players face horrible injury and lasting damage, particularly brain trauma. TYFA’s practices are messed up, but it’s not like the industry they’re training for is so great, either.
Some of the aforementioned backlash against Esquire is in producing an exploitative program that encourages bad coaching practices. I can understand that, and it’s easy to see why people are upset. But, again, this show is so damn short it’s basically a documentary. And while it refuses to take a stand on the treatment of the kids, it pretty clearly presents a choice that’s being made by parents, coaches, and football lovers: Pain and suffering for “the Win.”
At worst, Friday Night Tykes is another Toddlers & Tiaras. It could be that Esquire only wanted a provocative setting for their new show. Even at that low, there’s little room for exploitation. Ten episodes is a humble run, and unless the next nine episodes are just more of the same, there’s information and emotion here that’s important. So far, it seems like the show wants to explore this culture. It wants us to see the costs, not just of TYFA, but of trying to push our kids into a volatile trade. Shame on Esquire if the show is only meant to entertain, but what’s here is immutable. Regardless the intention, there’s shit being exposed.
Watch the first episode of Friday Night Tykes on Esquire.com