In the very first line of the debut episode of "Friday Night Tykes," a Texas youth football coach screams to his players, "You have the opportunity today to rip their freakin' head off and let them bleed!"
His players are 8 and 9 years old.
Here is the next line, from the same coach, "If I cut them with a knife, then they're going to bleed red just like you."
The opening montage continues with highlights of the show, which airs on the Esquire Network. Among other scenes, we see a violent collision that ends with one child lying face down, his arm contorted in the kind of awkward position that we often see from those who have suffered concussions.
The rest of Episode 1 is relatively tame by comparison, but the NFL and its official youth football arm have taken notice. At a time when the league has forcefully addressed the issues of concussions, violence and intentional injury infliction, "Friday Night Tykes" is a grassroots reminder of how much work remains. The NFL has spent $1.5 million to team with USA Football to create the "Heads Up Football" youth training program, and it was quick to point out this week that the youth association depicted in the show is unaffiliated.
"The program is definitely troubling to watch," said Jeff Miller, the NFL's senior vice president of health and safety policy. "Our understanding is that this is not a league that signed up with USA Football to be a part of the Heads Up Football program. Thousands of youth leagues registered for Heads Up Football training this past season, meaning their coaches are certified and teaching the game the right way. We hope this league and many more will join them this year."
"Friday Night Tykes" follows a handful of youth football teams as they navigate registration, training camp conditioning and the first game of the season. Much of the drama we see is a familiar sight in youth football. Players vomit and cry. Some are upset with playing time. Coaches show tough love, and in some cases, they exhibit the unnecessary intensity we see around the country in all youth sports.
To me, two unique aspects of "Friday Night Tykes" are worthy of genuine concern, be it from the NFL or USA Football or anyone else.
First, a potential head injury is at one point celebrated and at another point almost totally disregarded. We've already noted the former. In the latter, a boy absorbs a violent hit, snapping his head back and onto the ground. As the boy moans, those who surround him quickly conclude he is "all right" and that he "got stung" or "got rung."
Eventually, we see the boy given water after he is pulled up. Another parent drips some water on the boy's head. If additional care was given, we don't see it. That is hardly the type of potential concussion treatment the NFL is hoping to filter down to youth leagues. (Here is what USA Football recommends.)
Second, the language and violent imagery used in the opening sequence is more typical of high school and college coaches. It's questionable at best for 8- and 9-year-olds, who might not understand the difference between a metaphor and reality.
The NFL made clear its distaste for such language, which it considered an implied intent to injure, during the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal. Even if you believe the Saints mostly engaged in metaphorical motivation, it's scary to think that it would trickle down to youth leagues -- whose players are more likely to hear it and think that a primary point of the game is to hurt opposing players.
In a statement, USA Football executive director Scott Hallenbeck said in part: "Youth coaches by nature are role models, and the language and scenes in Esquire Network's 'Friday Night Tykes' are in sharp contrast to USA Football’s core beliefs and what is taking place on the majority of youth football fields across the country. Football and youth sports in general provide meaningful learning opportunities, and it is vitally important that the right individuals have the training necessary to teach our children these lessons."
It's important to understand what we're dealing with here. "Friday Night Tykes" is a reality show, not a documentary. Its genre requires an emphasis on the most dramatic moments captured, and what we see in this series is no closer to the real world than, say, "The Real World."
But its impact is not that easy to control. Its depictions, dramatized as they might be, can influence and affect those who are watching. I don't think anyone wants to see a normalization of such imagery in youth sports, nor does it help to see a potential concussion celebrated and/or go untreated. The hope is that "Friday Night Tykes" spurs discussion and recognition of those issues and, if anything, provides a roadmap -- of what not to do.