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SAN ANTONIO, Texas (Reuters) - To many Americans, "Friday Night Tykes," the new TV show about youth football, is coaching that teeters on the edge of child abuse. But to its fans in Texas, it's just a way of life.
Football looms large in the Lone Star State, and putting children as young as 7 through gut-wrenching gridiron drills also serves to toughen them up and prepare them for life, defenders of the youth league say.
"'Friday Night Tykes' is a docu-series that provides an authentic glimpse into a highly competitive youth sports experience in Texas," said executive producer Matt Maranz.
The show that premiered last week on the Esquire Network, bills itself as an inside look at the "emotional fans, obsessed parents, and passionate coaches" of the Texas Youth Football Association (TYFA).
Its January 14 debut drew 428,000 viewers, making it one of the most-watched original premieres for the new Esquire Network, while still relatively small when compared with established cable networks that attract several million viewers.
The series follows several teams of 8- and 9-year-old boys from initial practice sessions through games in the highly competitive world of Texas youth sports.
Football mom Lisa Connell said she wants her son, Colby, to learn the meaning of competition.
"We were done with everybody gets a trophy, everybody wins. We wanted him to understand the value of working hard and the reward that comes with that."
"This is Texas. You can't go anywhere without football," said Kinton Armmer, whose son also plays in the league.
The first episode opens with a coach in San Antonio telling his team of elementary-school-age boys about their rivals: "You have the opportunity today to rip their freakin' head off and let them bleed."
It then shows highlights of exceptional plays, children crying in their helmets as they are pushed to the limit and a player knocked out after a devastating hit on the field.
"This is wrong at so many levels. WTF?! How are these coaches not in jail. This is a blatant exploitation of kids," viewer Cedric Barnes wrote on a comment page for the show.
Scott Hallenbeck, executive director of USA Football - a governing body for amateur football - said this week that what is going on in this league is not indicative of how the majority of youth football programs work.
The bullying tactics used in the program are not the way to develop good football players, said Lee Igel, director of the Sports and Society Program at New York University.
"There is no good reason to berate or demean kids - on a field of play or anywhere else," he said. "It very rarely results in motivating them to perform better, and actually tends to have a demotivating and demoralizing effect."
Many Texans say that the more demanding coaches and adults are in the lives of children, the stronger they will be when they grow up. Many of the players in the TYFA go on to enter competitive football in junior high school, with hopes of someday going pro and playing in the National Football League.
"We want a competitive league," said Brian Morgan, the president of the TYFA. "It seems competition has become a bad word. The parents are looking for a league that is competitive and pushes their kids."
The league sees itself as a distinct contrast to other youth sports leagues where the emphasis is on having everyone play and scores often don't count. These coaches and parents have a disdain for youth programs that give out participation awards and do not breed winners.
Since the TYFA adopted its aggressive policies, parents have been flocking to the league to enroll their children, and it has become the largest youth football program in the state, Morgan said.
The TYFA starts kids off in flag football at the age of 4. Full pads, tackle and competition begin with the Midget Division at age 6.
Dr. Christian Balldin, who practices sports medicine at the San Antonio Orthopedic Group, said a few coaches are sacrificing the children's safety for the chance to win games.
He said a few of the coaches shown in the TV program are ordering the children to do things that are dangerous, like using the helmet as a weapon when tackling.
"You don't want to lead with your head," said Balldin. "That is likely to result in helmet-to-helmet injuries, and also to spearing type injuries which can damage the spinal cord."
TYFA officials have said that child safety is a paramount concern.
David Castro-Blanco, a child psychologist at the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago, said the league and the TV program are damaging the psyches of the children.
"They are not mature enough to handle this 'boot camp' mentality. Showing adults browbeating kids into being football players is dangerous entertainment."
Writing by Jon Herskovitz; editing by Gunna Dickson