On Monday, Bill Clinton and Kobe Bryant participated in a national conversation about getting kids more involved in organized sports by appealing to their competitive instinct. Last night, a new reality show warned us not to let that instinct go unchecked.
"Friday Night Tykes," which premiered on the Esquire Network, follows five teams of 8- and 9-year-olds in the Texas Youth Football Association's Rookie division. Featuring overbearing parents and coaches, the show has drawn comparisons to "Toddlers and Tiaras" and "Dance Moms" and raised questions about the appropriate level of competition for children.
The win-at-all-costs mentality depicted in "Tykes" has been widely criticized for its cruelty and violence. Unsympathetic coaches push players to tears and vomiting supposedly to teach them life lessons about hard work and motivation. These kids are also exposed to warped perspectives on health, safety and masculinity that could stay with them through adulthood, and, should any of them make it that far, their careers in professional football.
For one, the show reveals an intense culture that fosters bullying by equating emotions with weakness and painting a very narrow picture of what it means to be a man. At one point in last night's episode, a coach yells, "Emotion is a female trait. This is a man's sport!" Another justifies his brutal practice regimen by saying it will "separate the boys from the men," even though his players have yet to reach puberty. These are adult authority figures showing that it's completely fine to prey on the supposedly weak. We saw with the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito situation with the Miami Dolphins that such harassing behavior continues in professional locker rooms. "It's unfortunately the culture of the NFL," Brandon Marshall of the Chicago Bears said in response to that ordeal, pointing to the manufactured divides between rookies and established players, as well as between men and women, as the root cause of bullying. "We're teaching our men to mask their feelings, to not show their emotions. And it's times 100 with football players," he said. "You can't show that you're hurt, can't show any pain. So for a guy to come into the locker room and he shows a little vulnerability, that's a problem."
Young players taught to exploit weakness aren't just a danger to others -- they're a danger to themselves. When a boy is taught that stopping practice because he's vomiting makes him a quitter and that quitting is unacceptable, we can't be surprised when he grows up and doesn't fully understand the symptoms and consequences of head trauma. The National Football League recently reported that two players violated the league's concussion protocol during Wild Card Weekend by refusing to leave the sidelines after being diagnosed with a concussion. One player actually re-entered the game.
The NFL is largely to blame for previously downplaying the risks of sustained head injuries, and is trying to rectify this by allocating a part of its concussion settlement toward an education program. The league is also trying to instill better playing habits at the youth level by teaching "Heads Up Football" -- but that won't change the culture. Players will continue to underreport concussions as long as they're taught to shun weakness and derive their self-worth from winning from such a young age.
(Kavitha A. Davidson is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about sports. Follow her on Twitter at @kavithadavidson.)