Friday Night Tykes: TV Review
Esquire's troubling look into the world of Texas youth football highlights illegal recruiting, traumatic head injuries, and the question of how far is too far.
Friday Night Tykes, premiering on the Esquire Network (formerly Style), is a ten-part docuseries focusing on a hardcore San Antonio, Texas football program. What makes it controversial is that the teams, who go through grueling practices and are encouraged to knock each other out on the field, are made up of eight and nine-year-olds.
The stylish production lets the story speak for itself, as the world of Texas football clouds the coaches, and sometimes parents, into believing these young kids are actually small killing machines. They wouldn't be far wrong, what with the nearly child-soldier level of "encouragement" given to them, such as: "You have the opportunity today to rip their freaking head off and let them bleed. If I cut them with a knife, they're going to bleed, just like you. If you believe in yourself, you can do whatever you want to do in life. Do it now, though!"
Esquire means for the series to be controversial, and it is. That's part of its appeal. While there are some parents featured in the first episode who oppose these blood-thirsty tactics, no one steps in when a purple-faced child starts violently vomiting on the sidelines from exhaustion. "Pain is weakness leaving the body," a coach says. Occasionally there is cause for some actual action, though, like when another child "gets his bell rung," gripping his throbbing head and whimpering, after a teammate smashed into him at full-speed. "Once you get that first hit, you start liking it, you start craving it," viewers are told.
There's nothing positive about watching two small figures, who look like sticks with space helmets on, crack together thunderously as they ram one another. Searching "youth football deaths" yields a myriad of appalling results, including new studies on the long-term effects of traumatic head injuries sustained at such a young age. The NFL has already made a statement about their concerns with the new series, and is it any wonder? As a great article from Slate states, "people who draw a moral distinction between football and boxing are kidding themselves." Never has this been more on display, especially given the ages of those involved.
The circus-like atmosphere of the Texas football program is on full show in Friday Night Tykes, even as of the first episode. The age-verification process looks like border control. One coach cries after a loss, saying it was the biggest day of his life. A team spends $16,000 on uniforms. Parents move to the San Antonio area so their kid can be a part of this "storied" program. A family talks about how they were approached by a recruiter when their son was three years old. It's an extreme scenario, sure, but it's also one that bears consideration about what the middle way could and should be; one that doesn't just give trophies to everyone, but that rewards hard work and encourages sportsmanship, without endangering the health of those involved.
Friday Night Tykes is designed to shock its audience, and it's sure to spark up the debate again about the realities of some of the extreme practices in youth football. That alone makes the series worthwhile, though it has lots to offer. It's beautifully filmed, with multi-colored Texas sunsets framing the silhouettes of the tired children walking off the battlefield of practice, all to a swirling soundtrack reminiscent of Friday Night Light's use of Explosions in the Sky's ethereal sounds. It is the perfect ironic juxtaposition to the barbarism on display.