Matt Maranz spent a chunk of his summer in Pennsylvania’s Beaver County, a tradition-rich region northwest of Pittsburgh that has been the breeding ground of NFL stars like Joe Namath and Mike Ditka. As the producer of the Esquire Network’s documentary TV show “Friday Night Tykes,” which devoted its first two seasons to chronicling the cutthroat world of the Texas Youth Football Association, Maranz isn’t necessarily looking for good football — he’s looking for good stories.
Following multiple teams comprising 8- to 11-year-olds, the show has shadowed Texas coaches, players and their parents during a season of football. There are injuries. There are arguments. There are firings.
During the show’s first season, two coaches were suspended by the TYFA, one for encouraging his players to injure others with hits to the head, the other for swearing. Coach Marcus Goodloe (the swearer), also ran afoul of the league office when he interfered with the referee’s marker before an important fourth-down measurement.
The show’s depiction of intense coaches and fanatical parents has roiled debate. The New York Times, USA Today and Slate, among others, have considered the question of whether viewers are witnessing child abuse in action. Senate Minority Leader Dick Durbin of Illinois sent the Esquire Network a letter asking for the cancellation of “Friday Night Tykes,” charging that the show celebrates a culture of violence at a time when concussions have become a problem in the sport.
“It definitely has created some controversy,” Maranz acknowledges. “A lot of publications have said, ‘This might be borderline child abuse; we’re not sure these adults should be around kids.’”
Those questions may be warranted when the parents of opposing teams taunt each other as a 10-year-old lies on the field with a dislocated elbow, or when a coach responds to an injury by muttering, “He’s got a f***ing concussion. I know it.”
When a young player pulls himself up after a tackling drill with tears in his eyes, his coach explains, “Society as a whole has weakened kids these days. They are soft as Charmin.”
In one episode, a parent explodes at a team’s coaching staff, accusing them of only running plays designed for the offensive coordinator’s son rather than his. After the man is asked to leave the stands, his son can be heard worriedly asking, “What’s wrong with my dad?”
Maranz isn’t surprised by the public reaction. “When I sat down with the head of the [Texas Youth Football Association] even before this all happened, I said there’s a chance some, like The New York Times, might write op-ed pieces saying some pretty critical things about you and your league,” he recalls. “His response was, ‘I welcome that conversation. I want them to write things because I believe I’m right and I believe they’re wrong.’”
The show intentionally keeps its distance in the debate about the relative toughness of America’s youth. “It would be easy for us to sensationalize things or try to provoke a reaction by offering an opinion or particular point of view. But that’s not the goal,” Maranz says. “We work hard at not telling you what we think is right or wrong. All we want to do is document what would be happening even if we weren’t there and let you decide for yourself.”
In fact, the football aspect of “Friday Night Tykes” interests Maranz less than the broader issues arising from the show.
“How hard is too hard? How far is too far? How as a society do we want to be raising our kids?” Maranz says. “Those really are the questions this series is asking” through the prism of youth football.
Hence the attraction to Beaver County, whose hardscrabble stories Maranz believes will provide great fodder for the show’s third season, just as San Antonio did in the first two seasons (part of season three also is filmed in San Antonio).
The Texas city’s make-up created striking juxtapositions. In a memorable episode, Daibo, an African-American player on the predominately black and lower-income San Antonio Outlaws, waits for his coach to pick him up for practice while his mother relates how she doesn’t let her son play in the yard because their house was the backdrop for a recent shooting. Then we meet the family of Justice Hurt, a white player whose father is the Alamo City Lobos offensive coordinator. They sit in front of a large television reviewing game film together in their house’s media room. “It’s all about football here,” Justice’s mom confesses.
The “Friday Night Tykes” second season zeroed in on parent behavior, with mothers and fathers openly criticizing each other, coaches and referees, and placing their rooting interests above the players’ well-being. The parents of Justice Hurt even admit they named their child based on what would sound most impressive coming out of a game announcer’s mouth.
“The whole youth sports movement has taken on a life of its own and that was the subtext about why I thought this show was going to be interesting,” Maranz says.
Maranz has always been attracted to character-driven storytelling. A history and geography major at Clark, he wrote for The Scarlet in his junior and senior years. After graduating, he turned an internship at Worcester Magazine into a full-time job, which he held for a year before heading to Columbia University to earn his master’s degree in journalism. His work appeared in The New Yorker and The New Republic, among other publications. A Tokyo Broadcasting System correspondent recruited him to uncover stories in the United States, kick-starting Maranz’s career producing content for television.
In 2002 Maranz launched his own company, 441 Productions, as a way “to tell bigger stories.” He produced for HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel,” as well as for the Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Nagano and Sydney Olympics on NBC and CBS. He crafted documentary- and biographical-style segments for sports and games programs, and created the popular “World Series of Poker” for ESPN in 2003. The results have proven a success in both ratings and awards: 441 Productions boasts 22 Emmy wins.
When it comes to “Friday Night Tykes,” Maranz has mixed feelings about the interactions between parents, coaches and kids that his cameras are capturing.
“What we find is that everyone wants what’s best for their kids. How we decide what that is or how to accomplish it, is different for everyone,” he says. “Even if you think the coaches are monsters, it’s not like they woke up in the morning and said, ‘I can’t wait to try to screw up some kids.’ They truly believe this is what’s best for the children.”
Some parents clearly agree with the tough-love approach the Texas coaches prescribe. In season two, one coach explains that a parent called him to say her son, Simon, had been talking back at home. At the next practice, the coach addresses the situation in front of the team:
“You need to have respect when you’re at home and at school. What Simon’s gonna do, he’s gonna bear crawl along the goal line” — the coach pauses here to point to another stretch of the field — “and run. And he’s gonna do that all … day … long. So let me hear about you guys wanting to talk back to your elders. You’re gonna pay.”
Abuse to some ears; music to others.
Wendy Grolnick, professor of psychology at Clark and the author of “Pressured Parents, Stressed-Out Kids: Dealing with Competition While Raising a Successful Child,” says parents should proceed with caution when enlisting their child in a sport or other activity.
“Parents who want their kids to be good at a sport or an instrument really have to be careful about pushing kids from behind,” Gronlick says. “It’s a hard thing to do once your child is involved in one of these sports, because you love them and nature wants us to be competitive.”
For all the cringe-worthy moments, “Friday Night Tykes” also offers testimony to the benefits of youth sports. A father, out of prison after serving six years — more than half of his child’s life — uses his son’s passion for football as a pathway for reentering the family. A young player under doctor’s orders not to play anymore because of a concussion offers kicking advice to a teammate, his spirits lifted.
These types of positive outcomes, Grolnick says, should be the focus for parents and coaches. She says research shows that participating in sports correlates to students performing better in school and avoiding trouble, but adds that there is no evidence children need to be in a high-pressure environment to reap those benefits.
“One of the things that we really don’t want to do is stamp out that fun and intrinsic motivation, because the love of the game is really what’s going to take them through,” she says. “Take that out and they’re going to burn out. They’re going to get hurt.”
Maranz has the advantage of seeing the people and situations on “Friday Night Tykes” from multiple angles. He’s the parent of an athlete (his middle school-aged son plays soccer, basketball and baseball) and the son and brother of coaches (his dad coached high school basketball for 30 years and his brother coached basketball at the collegiate level). Throw in his own experiences playing soccer and basketball at Clark and he’s able to empathize with just about every person who appears on his show.
The Texas Youth Football Association may regret the decision to allow access to Maranz’s documentary series — league president Brian Morgan intimated as much to USA Today — but Maranz believes raising questions about youth sports without narrative judgment has been the most effective way to probe for answers.
“We over-schedule our kids and we’re very demanding of our kids, doing everything possible to get them to success,” he says. “On one level we’re too soft on them, while on another we’re pushing them to become these super-achievers regardless of what the activity is — it could be soccer, or clarinet, or Mandarin lessons.”
In other words, it’s always Friday night somewhere.
From CLARK alumni magazine, fall 2015 | Photos courtesy of Esquire Network