Kinder, gentler football.
A temperate February Sunday in Green Valley. On a large rectangle of winter-ravaged grass at Greenspun Middle School, youth sports is taking place. Football and soccer. Furious shouts of “Get out there and kick some ass!” do not ring in the air. Coaches, intent on winning, do not bawl out their players. Red-faced confrontations between parents and referees do not disturb the peace. The only sounds are positive, supportive — lots of cheering, mostly. It’s almost as if life isn’t like “Friday Night Tykes.”
“Tykes,” as you may be aware, is the Esquire Network’s reality show about hypercompetitive youth football and the adults who get off on it. It’s come under fire for its depiction of a severe win-at-all-costs fervor. Earlier this year, two coaches were suspended for, in the words of the ABC News website, “encouraging dangerous play and bad behavior among their 8- and 9-year-old players.”
James and Holly Campbell are going a different way. Former government contractors who say they provided cultural instruction to troops bound for the Middle East, they recently bought the local franchise of i9 Sports. It’s a kinder, gentler league, with some 600,000 kids enrolled nationally, that counters the rising intensity (and fear of injury) that lately has marked traditional youth sports. i9 is competitive, yes; hyper, no. The football is flag, so there’s less risk of injury. Parents sign a code of conduct, so their emotions don’t catch fire. Coaches and refs — anyone who deals with the kids — are background-checked, so parents can worry a little less. There’s a slaughter rule, so no team wins by a humiliatingly wide margin. Not to mention weekly “core value” lessons (courage, fairness), practice and games on the same day and sportsmanship medals each week.
“Fun, safety and convenience,” James sums up, as Holly whoops for their daughter, a flag football player who just now almost caught a pass. “We’re just trying to make this a very fun league that’s comfortable on parents,” he adds. The same-day practice and games, for example: Families aren’t giving up two or three nights a week for practice, missing homework and cramming down fast food on the way home.
The Campbells launched i9 last September with football and soccer leagues in Summerlin that drew about 100 players. (Nationally, i9 also offers other sports, including baseball and basketball.) When the new season started in January, registrations were up 60 percent and they had enough interest in Green Valley to begin a small league there. Players range in age from 3-13, with three divisions in each sport.
Have the Campbells seen “Friday Night Tykes”? “Fifteen minutes was all we could take,” Holly says. She shudders to think about parenting or coaching in that atmosphere, adhering to some improbable belief that youth sports stardom will springboard your child to sports greatness in high school and maybe a scholarship to college. “There are so few people that really become those kinds of athletes,” she says. And if a player isn’t that gifted, his role on the team becomes “the kid who gets in the way of the players who want to tackle the good kid.”
“I used to be one of those parents who try to live out their sports dreams through their kids,” James admits; he thinks it took all the fun out of his son’s basketball playing. That explains his passion for the i9 program.
To those who’d argue that blunting the win-or-lose edge of sports ultimately hurts the child — by failing to prepare them for the competitive way adult life sorts winners from losers in the workplace and any number of social settings — Holly would counter: They’re just kids. “The fun of it is the best part,” she says.