Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
The best stories about sports are the stories that are not really about the sport itself at all. The sporting, or coaching, or athleticism should play a supporting role to whatever else is happening in the story—so much so that you could swap out the particular sport for practically any other related discipline, and the heart of the story would remain the same. This is the case with the show Ted Lasso. On one level, it is a heartwarming comedy about Premier League Football, but on another level it is a celebration of the life and work of a coach who embodies true kindness, love, joy, and patience amidst many storms—both serious and humorous. Ted Lasso celebrates the fruit of the Spirit, and I certainly didn’t anticipate writing that about a TV-MA original streaming sports comedy in the year 2020. But in a time when winning has become the ultimate morality, and the struggle to gain and maintain power has turned otherwise absolute standards of goodness into subjective opinion in the eyes of so many, we all need more of what Ted Lasso is dishing out.
Ted Lasso is an Apple TV+ show about an American football coach named Ted Lasso (Jason Sudeikis) who gets hired to manage a failing London football team called AFC Richmond. He doesn’t know a thing about soccer, English culture, the insults levied against him from the club’s fanbase—or the fact that the owner of the team, Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham), hired him to intentionally tank AFC Richmond as a revenge scheme against her cheating ex-husband. But none of this matters, because to Ted, coaching is about investing in the well-being of the people on his team, and everyone who touches Ted’s life is on his team—from the man who picked him up from the airport to the kit-boy “Nate the Great” (Nick Mohammed), to Rebecca herself.In a time when winning has become the ultimate morality, and the struggle to gain and maintain power has turned otherwise absolute standards of goodness into subjective opinion in the eyes of so many, we all need more of what Ted Lasso is dishing out.
Hiring Ted to coach AFC Richmond isn’t the only step Rebecca takes to try and tank the team as part of her elaborate revenge on her ex-husband (who loves AFC Richmond). She also goes out of her way to do everything she can to make sure Ted fails, including shining a bright light on his ineptitude as an American football coach in London. Inviting a vicious columnist to write a profile on him, Rebecca feels certain the negative press will help demoralize the seemingly unflappable coach. Instead, Ted spends the day with the journalist and, surprisingly to only Rebecca, wins the man over. Instead of writing a hatchet piece, the profile—titled “Wayward Ted”—balances honesty over Ted’s unpreparedness and lack of experience to coach such a team as AFC Richmond in the Premier League with glowing, almost begrudging admiration for the man. “In an industry that celebrates ego, Ted reins his in,” the columnist writes, who seems assured Ted will fail as a football coach—but who wishes him well nonetheless.
Ted is not demoralized by the profile, nor anything that follows—at least he never lets himself stay demoralized for long. And it’s not because he’s not smart enough to know what’s going on. Ted is a smart man, and this characterization is important. It would be easy to view a character like Ted Lasso as stupid, and even easier to play him that way. Jason Sudeikis (who created a version of the character back in 2013 for an NBC Sports promo and went on to write the show around him) resists this easy path of expected characterization, despite leaning into fish-out-of-water comedy and “Southernisms,” like Ted’s thick Kansas drawl and his aversion to hot tea and carbonated water. Sudeikis’s Ted is far from stupid, which is a breath of fresh air into the North/South polarization of the current climate in America. But neither is Ted a genius or right about all things; his dominant characteristic is kindness—and kindness leads to a genuine optimism about people, life, and situation that covers a multitude of sins and deficiencies. And kindness, true kindness, is born of love for others.
I’ve gotten so used to seeing alpha-male heroes in entertainment that I almost forgot that manliness is not defined by bravado. In fact, it’s so rare to see depictions of male protagonists who value gentleness and kindness—not at the expense of strength, but as the source of their strength—that the whole experience of watching Ted Lasso was, for lack of a better word, moving. Thinking back, I have to remind myself that the show was funny; the comedy was often swallowed up in the goodness of the character and the story built around him. In how Ted bakes and brings biscuits to Rebecca every morning. In how he seeks the advice of Nate the kit-boy—and leads the team to elevate Nate to a personhood he hasn’t enjoyed with the team before. In how he spends night after night with fans who vocalize abuses on him. In how, even as his own marriage struggles, he helps Rebecca through the pains of her divorce. Which is why I can’t help but think of the fruit of the Spirit—“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law”—when I think of Ted Lasso.
Embodying the fruit of the Spirit doesn’t mean your life will go perfectly. Neither does the story portray Ted as some Pollyanna who succeeds in life by the power of positive thinking. There is no formula of success to this sports tale—as hard as Ted works to unite his team and love all his people, all the “feel good” moments don’t necessarily correlate to perfect moments on the pitch. Because life and people are more complicated than that, which the show acknowledges. And Ted himself is dealing with the death of his marriage as the season progresses—a marriage he fights for and mourns when it dies. “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs…” Ted’s love for others—which comes out through patience, kindness, a refusal to envy or be self-seeking, and more—holds him together even when things don’t go as he would like them to. And eventually, it holds his entire team together, as well.
Ted gradually wins over everyone on his team, from the players to Nate, to Rebecca, and all those in between. When he wrongs others, he confesses without making excuses for his behavior and asks forgiveness. His influence leads those who betrayed him to confess their sins to him—sins he readily forgives. He uplifts the downtrodden, forms new leaders, never loses hope in his athletes (no matter how they perform). Sometimes not losing hope in his athletes means benching them for their own good; sometimes it means not putting them on the bench even when everyone else tells him the player should be benched. To Ted, the person is more important than the outcome of the game. He sees the value in everyone who crosses his path and upholds their humanity.
A life lived like Ted Lasso lives his life really is “wayward,” because Ted Lasso cares more about the hearts and minds of his people than about winning, or losing, a football game. I wish more of us admired “wayward” men.
I’m not going to tell you how AFC Richmond does under Coach Lasso’s leadership—mostly because I want you to watch the show for yourself, but also because I don’t think it ultimately really matters. As I said above, the sporting aspect of the show is secondary to everything else. It’s secondary to a love that “always hopes… always perseveres”—it’s secondary to celebrating a character who, in 2020, embodies so much of what Jesus taught us to do and think and be in this world. As we head into election season, Ted Lasso is exactly the sort of story we need to show us a little bit of what greatness really looks like.