Each evening on my drive home in Nashville, I would pass a field dotted with tiny figures in plastic armor, smashing into each other again and again. It was Pee-Wee football practice, the players five and six years old. As a Southerner, I understood football to be a rite of passage taken very seriously, but the daily sight of kindergartners wearing oversized helmets and shoulder pads was curious and complicated.
This photo essay looks at just one of the thousands of pee-wee football teams across America. I explore the dissonance between tender affection and routine concussions checks, between what it means to be a child and expectations for what it means to “Be a Man.” I try to comprehend how constant collisions and pressure to succeed impacts a child’s physical and mental development, and how the dynamics between coaches, parents, and kids set a precedent for the next generation.
In the background is the NFL, operated exclusively by wealthy white owners, which directly funds youth football leagues like this one as a pipeline for the players of tomorrow, 7 out of 10 who are African American. In securing the future of their business, this industry of football establishes social norms that reach beyond the touted ideals of teamwork, discipline, and community, ultimately driving how American youth actualize concepts of violence, race, class, and gender.