Football organizations from the NFL to Pop Warner are doing and saying everything they can to convince us that the sport is safe and can be a positive force in the lives of young athletes.
Then along comes a new reality television program - "Friday Night Tykes" on the Esquire Network - that shows youth football at its absolute worst.
Some people might have to search for the show online because it may not be available on some local cable systems. It's worth the effort. "Friday Night Tykes" is compelling television for two very different reasons.
The show follows five San Antonio football teams in the Texas Youth Football Association's Rookie Division. These teams of 8- and 9-year-olds play in what is billed as "one of the elite football leagues for kids in America."
On one hand, the show is compelling because of how honestly it portrays real concerns of parents about youth football. For instance:
The family of one of the players is seen consoling him when he is held out after suffering a severe concussion - one that temporarily left him unable to recognize his mother.
The parents of the Predators' quarterback - whose dad is also the head coach - tries to allay the child's fears of getting hurt before playing the Outlaws, a team that celebrates how hard its players hit opponents.
The mom/general manager of the Jr. Broncos is frustrated with the coach because her son isn't getting to play despite his tireless work in practice.
On the other hand, Friday Night Tykes is compelling because it demonstrates in vivid detail everything that is wrong with youth football.
The Colts, one of the league's best teams, go for another touchdown with seconds remaining while already beating their rival, 25-0.
One of the players, Jaden "J Boogie" Armmer, was recruited to play football when he was 3 years old.
The mother of an Outlaws player rehearses the obnoxious trash-talking cheers she screams at the opposing teams.
The Jr. Broncos coach tells his nose tackle to intentionally jump offsides just to knock the opposing center on his back on the first play of the game.
Worse than all of those bad behaviors, though, is the treatment of the players by some of the coaches. It is behavior that could be described as falling somewhere between bullying and child abuse.
These are just a few examples from the show's first three episodes.
An Outlaws assistant coach screams at a player, who is vomiting during a game after being sick all week, "Damn Luke. Stop your ... crying, for one thing. Drink some water. Shake it off. Finish the game."
Colby, the son of the previously mentioned Jr. Broncos "momager," runs all day in 99-degree heat. After he throws up several times, the head coach screams at him to run with the team. "I don't care how bad it hurts. You don't quit!"
Possibly worst of all, I counted 20 instances of coaches calling for their players to hurt the opposing players. By my count, there were 27 helmet-to-helmet hits shown before the first mention of players keeping their heads up and tackling properly. That tackling instruction occurred six minutes into the third episode.
The NFL has expressed its concerns over "Friday Night Tykes." According to the Los Angeles Times, an NFL spokesman admitted, "The trailer is definitely troubling to watch," and pointed out that TYFA does not participate in the NFL's Heads Up Football program.
As bad as this coaching behavior is, it is also likely to be counterproductive. While many of the parents of the San Antonio kids probably dream of their youngsters playing major college football one day, this bullying might actually cause the kids to quit football before they even make it to high school. According to Safe Kids USA, 70 percent of children quit playing organized sports by age 13. Excessive pressure from coaches is thought to be one of the main factors.
In a rare moment of compassion, Colts' head coach Marecus Goodloe admits that youth sports should be fun for young athletes.
"The way to get the kids to give you 100 percent, they have to have fun doing it," Goodloe said. "If they don't have fun, they're just out there. You're not going to get out of them what you need to get out of them."
Ironically, his Colts team is the same one whose coaches lead the players in profanity-laced cheers and whose players chant "Let's get paid!" and symbolically throw money on the opponent's logo when they score.
Despite all of the startling behavior seen in "Friday Night Tykes", it is the bullying of players by the coaches that is most disturbing. Sports are critical for the development of young kids. Coaches should push their players to work hard in practice and compete to the best of their abilities. But at some point, the coaches and parents must realize that they are still kids.
Any coach who feels the need to bully young kids is a loser, regardless of what the scoreboard says.
Dr. David Geier is an orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist in Charleston. For more information about youth football injuries and other sports medicine topics, go to his blog at drdavidgeier.com.
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