‘Friday Night Tykes’: The decline of Western civilization?

This is a guest post from Katie Voss. Please greet her on Twitter

Youth football first became an establishment in 1929, and since then has been led by leagues such as the Texas Youth Football Association who, after being followed by cameras for the new reality show Friday Night Tykes, may face some backlash for their intense coaching antics. The primary goal of youth sports leagues, or at least their original intent, was to encourage the development of young athletes into capable leaders, teammates, and driven individuals. However, if Friday Night Tykes is an accurate reflection of what many youth sports programs have become, it looks like the realm of youth football has some re-evaluating to do.

The docu-series, which follows five teams of 8- to 9-year-old rookie players competing in the Texas Youth Football Association (TYFA), has shown not only some rough takedowns and questionably safe activities, but also some frightening advice from coaches and parents alike. One coach is quoted encouraging players to, “Rip their freaking head off and let them bleed.” He then goes on to tell another young athlete, “I want you to stick it in his helmet — I don’t care if he don’t get up.” Only one mother, perhaps shown to placate audiences, is filmed reminding fellow parents that the boys are little more than babies.

The show, set to air on the Esquire Network on January 14 (available from most cable providers, DirectStar TV and from their website), is giving ammo (perhaps unintentionally) to already concerned parents and others regarding the safety of youth football and similar contact sports. From the preview alone, which is being advertised on TYFA’s homepage with pride, it’s clear that these players are participants in some of the worst aspects of athletics: public shaming, being pushed past physical breaking points, and high-risk, injury-causing activities. Someone may have to remind these coaches that their players need to safely make it through elementary, middle, and high school before being given a chance to play for their favorite colleges.

It seems Esquire expected some sort of controversial response, which is no surprise since the dangers regarding concussions from football and similar sports has been filling headlines across the country for the past couple years. As recently as 2012, more than 2,000 NFL players sued the NFL for not educating them on the possible consequences of repeated blows to the head, and the controversy resulted in a PBS documentary: League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis. Esquire claims that the show will bring to light important health questions regarding young athletes. Their website claims the show will have “coaches and parents offer insight into why they believe they’re teaching valuable lessons about discipline and dedications, but also grapple with serious questions about parenting, safety, and at what price we’re pushing our kids to win.”

Concussion awareness aside, one of the biggest issues a young athlete will face is the “culture of resistance” found in most competitive sports. Whether it is a potential head injury or other physical pain, athletes are often afraid or discouraged from reporting injuries. Staying on the sidelines, and therefore disappointing mom, dad, and coach during or prior to important games can be more convincing than physical discomfort.

The NFL, which has been trying to reduce head-to-head collisions among players through penalties, fines, and education, has already felt the need to publicly mention that Friday Night Tykes is not a part of their Heads Up Football Program, which seeks to improve player safety in youth football. If even the NFL is skeptical, chances are the show will not highlight the bright side of little league football. In the end, what audiences can only hope for from the show is an understanding of what needs to change in order to improve youth sports.

Much as Teen Mom was aimed toward (and possibly succeeded in) lowering teen pregnancy rates, Friday Night Tykes could help reduce the culture of resistance in youth sports, and educate parents and kids alike on the safety risks, and necessary precautions, that are part of high-contact sports.

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