Friday Night Tykes is a new reality program based on a youth football league in San Antonio, Texas. I learned of this program after the national news did a segment on it after the premiere. In this segment viewers who felt very uncomfortable with how the coaches were working with these eight and nine year-old boys made criticism about what they saw in the program; the consequences of these young men being mentored in an environment of “win at any cost”.
The program premiered on the Esquire cable network, but today I was able to see the program on the Bravo network, at 9am. Much of what the viewers mentioned on the news was in plain sight–children being overworked into sickness and then told they were weak if they give up; hyper competitive, authoritative, angry coaches; fraternity like rituals for training; children crying; a coach crying in defeat; children working hard in excessive heat (99degrees at times) but not getting playing time and parents existing in some form of social acceptance to what’s happening on and off the field.
As the father of a twelve year-old boy much of the problems discussed on the news were very easy for me to identify when viewing the program. I once had to coach my son’s 10 year-old basketball team because the coaching styles were quite similar to what you see on this program. The only difference was in our league all six head and assistant coaches were white males. I did not intend on coaching my son’s team because at this time I was a homeschooling father, and this was an activity I wanted led by someone else so my son wouldn’t get bored with me leading the majority of his academic, social and recreational activities. But as my wife pointed out, the behaviors we were experiencing with these coaches were the same behaviors displayed by the teachers in elementary school which lead to our creation of our own homeschooling network and taking the lead with our son’s education. And then she said, “you need to coach!”
She was right! Before I coached my son he thought he didn’t like basketball but I knew as I watched his games it had everything to do with the leadership. My wife and I were very intentional in signing up for this league based on it having a novice level for novice players— and that is my son. His interest is more Batman comics and movies than NBA; a lot of Dr. Who, Michael Jackson, Prince, Jazzy Jeff/Fresh Prince/Will Smith, The Ink Spots, Beatles, Blackstar, The Fugees, Sam Cooke, Looney Tunes, Regular Show, Jim Lee, Stan Lee, Bruce Lee, James Bond, Bilbo, Frodo, Neo, etc.
So on a fast-break with a wide open lay-up my son (Bruce Wayne/Michael Jackson) is the kid guaranteed to have a very entertaining result, sometimes the ball will come close to going in, and a lot of times one will wonder “how did this kat miss the entire backboard?” So when I coached my son the pressure of doing things right could not be a part of the equation to him learning basketball, right is too abstract yet very specific to what the adult is desiring, instead he needed to have the positive experience of playing basketball. Just play! Don’t worry about your shooting form (he’s ten); don’t aim for the basket, just shoot and feel good doing it. The results of my participation were what my wife expected, my son had the best time ever, and he scored more points in one game with me than he did in his entire summer basketball camp and two basketball leagues he attended prior to me taking over as his coach.
Viewing Friday Night Tykes was frightening for me because I have had to navigate the very narrow social emotional ways men engage with young boys and begin to exclude them based on presumed notions of strength and weakness. Viewing this program reminded me of the many young eight year-old “athletes” who excluded my son from “friendship” based on him not physically and skillfully dominating in basketball, football or baseball, which they have ranked high in the hierarchy of sports, but more importantly they have learned a social tool that will help them discriminate in friend selection, and they don’t even know it. For years I have played mediator between this group and my son, as they both are innocent of the machismo doctrine they inherit from older generations, so I don’t hold these young kids at fault; the problem for me has been finding more communities where men and women do not cash in on that inheritance, but many clips in Friday Night Tykes supports otherwise.
There is a scene where an African-American boy named Jaden is asked to run for his coach. The back-story of Jaden was he missed practice because he was out of town visiting a relative, before his return to practice the coach assured the camera Jaden was going to pay by running, “he’s going to run, and run, and run.” So upon Jaden’s first practice the coach asked Jaden does he see the bushes at the end of the field, Jaden responds yes and then the coach says “just keep going and touch’em until I tell you to stop, you got to get some conditioning in, you just keep running to them bushes and coming back until I tell you to stop.” Jaden begins running and as a viewer you begin to notice he is running the entire practice; Jaden is running so long that by the time he is spoken to by an assistant coach, the sun is setting. At this point I assumed the assistant coach would buffer the sternness of the head coach, which assistance do in some cases but, this wasn’t one of those cases. The assistant coach gives him a new area to run to, and then the head coach asked Jaden was he ready and when Jaden said yes, the head coach tells him to keep running.
Whether the coach believed this was truly the best way to help Jaden gain more stamina or his way of driving in his personal point of, “don’t ever miss my practice,” the only true lesson that is clear from watching and hearing Jaden cry in the back seat of his parents car as they drive home is, the coach has mastered the skill of breaking a nine year-old’s spirit. A spirit Jaden needs far pass playing football. In seeing this scene I started to wonder the back-story of coaches with demeanors and styles more suited for working with adult men (really the military, which one coach is from) but instead they work with young, impressionable and unconditionally loyal children. Instead of calling a child weak why not demonstrate braveness by going for a college or NFL coaching job, where your yelling and tactics might be somewhat justifiable, but as soon as that thought crossed my mind the one possible positive piece in this program hit the screen.
As I continued to view this episode of Friday Night Tykes, one of the coaches said something that made me feel this might be the positive, redeeming factor of this series. One of the most outspoken coaches in this episode who actually cries when his team loses says, “I was always taught to be upset and to be pissed off.”
As I watched this scene I started to think the producers and director are purposely exploiting the coaching behaviors to show a dramatic change of this culture by the end of the season. That maybe this broadcast is to help aid us in pointing out and then stopping a form of organized bullying. Hearing the coach mention he was “coached” by his father might have been intentionally left in because this gentlemen is eventually going to break the cycle and, this will happen midway through the season after parents confront the coaches and put an end to the culture of unnecessary, irate grown men who believe being upset is a form of administration. This clip revealed the back-story I was asking for and I’m hoping this is the case.
As a father approaching 40, I struggle to meet men who are not disillusion with thinking they are doing the professional leagues a favor by aggressively sorting out children who participate in organize sports. My intervening in my own son’s education and recreational experience (serving as both his coach and lead teacher) was unfortunately the result of this same culture demonstrated so vividly on Friday Night Tykes.
I am not taking for granted the hard work for both parents and coaches that help to organize youth leagues like the one showcased, nor do I believe leagues have to be personalized for my son to participate. But I do know our current leadership in schools and organize sports doesn’t allow the majority of parents to feel comfortable with what their child is learning.
This one episode moved me, moved me so much I said I have to post this even though my site is not ready to be launched. However, the goal of my site has everything to do with building a new community. If Friday Night Tykes doesn’t reach the conclusion I hope for, I still need a community of meaningful education, supportive parenting and diverse play to become visible across this planet.
And hopefully, at some point I can retire from being my son’s coach and enjoy his play from the stands.
Love & Harmony