“Football Is Life!” Ted Lasso and the Age-Old Question of Whether “Winning Is Everything”
Warning: The following article contains spoilers.
Let’s face it. The past 5-10 years in the United States have not exactly been a sweeping endorsement for kindness and compassion. Ever since former president Donald Trump ran his campaign in 2016 and then again in 2020, the message has been brutish. Charismatic and alluring for many…but brutish, nonetheless. Brutish, and, in many instances, downright mean-spirited. Mean-spirited, arrogant, dismissive, and judgmental. Watch any “news” channel where the anchors don’t present objective truth but rather loud-mouthed, postmodern interpretations of it. The motivation isn’t a better and more honest society. It’s greed, ego, and tribalism. How do these people who operate so shamelessly and rancorously justify their attitudes and behaviors? Simple- “mean= tough= strength= good.” That, or some variation of Social Darwinism. Or they just don’t care! “[Expletive] Your Feelings!” was the campaign slogan that appeared in 2020.
All that to say it was very refreshing when Ted Lasso hit Apple TV+ in the summer of 2020. Ted Lasso, which stars Jason Sudeikis as the eponymous lead, is the story of an American who moves from Kansas to England to coach a soccer (football) team there. The team- AFC Richmond- doesn’t initially welcome Coach Lasso with open arms, but that doesn’t faze him. Ted has the patience and charitability of a saint, and he keeps his interactions with everyone open and friendly. It’s not hard to see why his persona resonated with so many real-life people!
Ted Lasso was developed by Jason Sudeikis, Bill Lawrence, Brendan Hunt, and Joe Kelly. Its production companies include Ruby’s Tuna Inc., Doozer, Universal Television, and Warner Bros. Television Studios. It is based on the format and characters from NBC Sports, and its co-stars include Hannah Waddington, Jeremy Swift, Brett Goldstein, Juno Temple, and Phil Dunster. Marcus Mumford and Tom Howe provide the show’s intro music.
Back to the show. Ted reports to Rebecca (Hannah Waddington), the recently divorced club owner who- unbeknownst to Lasso- initially hires and sets out to sabotage him to get back at her ex-husband, Rupert Mannion (Anthony Head). Every morning Ted brings her a box of biscuits (cookies) and banters with her. Meanwhile, Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein), the team’s raspy-voiced box-to-box midfielder (allegedly based on real-life, hotheaded Irish player Roy Keane) vies with Jamie Tart (Phil Dunster), the team’s talented but egotistical striker, for top spot, creating tension amongst the team. The two are also later involved in a love triangle of sorts with Jamie’s beautiful girlfriend, Keeley (Juno Temple), who manages the club’s public relations.
Ted is presented with the age-old situation. He coaches an all-male team. It’s sports. Obviously, big testosterone energy comes with the terrain! Everybody wants to win! Anything else is unacceptable! Right? Well. That’s what many of us who’ve complicated our moral view of the world with cynicism and realpolitik(s) may now believe. It governs politics (no pun intended), Hollywood, Wall Street, the legal system, and even romance. “Nice guys finish last” goes the old saying. You want to win? You want to be successful? You want status and prestige and all the perks of life? Then come at it with a sledgehammer… fiercely, ferociously, and unapologetically!
But fortunately- at least in the realm of sports- such black-and-white, zero-sum thinking isn’t necessary. Ted Lasso- both the character and the show- carefully reminds us of the other timeless adage: “it’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game”. Ted listens to his players and their concerns. He praises them when they do things right. He cuts to the chase and communicates truthfully when they mess up, and he always encourages them to “believe” (posted on a banner in the locker room). When they lose, he maintains an upbeat and encouraging attitude, reminding them they can always go out and try again.
The eponymous coach (played by Jason Sudeikis) stands before the “believe” banner in the team locker room. Image courtesy of Apple TV+
This is intriguing. We’re so used to the zero-sum, winner-takes-all mindset that has colorized the modern world that we’ve forgotten why our childhood teachers, coaches, and parents would have ever encouraged us otherwise. The reason isn’t that winning doesn’t matter. Winning matters. But it matters in the long term. It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose a specific game or season, but whether you are invited back to play. If you are invited back to play, then the opportunity to win remains. If you aren’t invited back, though, then the game is no longer available to you, and that’s where the real “losing” occurs.
In Ted Lasso’s second season, that above theme takes a darker and more poignant turn. We learn that Lasso himself is struggling with a divorce. He also suffers from panic attacks (one of which occurs during a game and incites judgment/ridicule from the crowds). He is wary of counseling but eventually speaks with the team therapist Dr. Sharon Fieldstone (Sarah Niles), recounting his tragic past. When he was a teenager, Ted audibly witnessed his father “exiting the game” so to speak (his father committed suicide via shotgun). Ted couldn’t understand why he did it and was stuck with the pain of never knowing. This scene is crosscut with Rebecca recalling her own troubled past (her father had an extramarital affair).
Such experiences of loss, anger, and despair can drive people to alienate themselves from whatever games they’re playing…be it their relationship(s) with others or sometimes even life itself. Recently, the real-life cast of Ted Lasso visited the White House and addressed the topic of mental illness. If you know someone who is suffering through mental illness or emotional hardship, reach out to them. Remind them that you appreciate having them “on the team,” so to speak, and wish for them to “continue playing.”
In true Christian fashion, Lasso even extends this philosophy to his “enemies.” In the first season, Rebecca comes clean about trying to sabotage Ted to get back at her ex-husband. Ted is visibly hurt but forgives her, reminding her that he understands- people going through divorce may act in ways they wouldn’t usually behave. In the second and third seasons, Nate Shelley (Nick Mohammad), a fellow coach who Lasso promoted, turns coat and leaves for another team. On live TV, Nate badmouths Lasso. In response, though, Ted praises Nate and accepts his insults with self-deprecating humor.
Ted Lasso with some of his fellow coaches. Image courtesy of Apple TV+
The major scene that highlights Lasso’s philosophy, though, is the famous “dart scene.” When Rebecca’s ex-husband corners and disrespects her at a pub, Ted Lasso intervenes. He challenges Rupert to a game of darts. The terms of agreement- if Lasso wins- Rupert must stop bothering his (Rupert’s) ex-wife. Rupert accepts the challenge but doesn’t realize that Ted is a pro at darts. Ted, without a trace of bitterness, anger, or arrogance, calmly tells a story. One day as a kid on his way to school he saw a sign with a Walt Whitman quote: “Be Curious.” Ted took that quote to heart, and so he explains the importance of not immediately judging those we may dislike or even despise, as he himself was someone people used to judge. He then adds that every Sunday he used to play darts with his father, and then utters “barbecue sauce” before sinking a bull’s eye shot.
In closing, is the Ted Lasso approach to life the right one? It certainly appears to be, and it’s hard to imagine that we got wrong the whole philosophy of “winning and losing” we learned as kids. The modern world has a strange, complicated, and somewhat uncomfortable relationship with the concept of kindness, though. Many write it off as a form of “weakness.” If the message isn’t driven with a sword and hammer, they lose interest. But those people miss the point. Friendliness/kindness and compassion aren’t about letting others treat you however they wish. Friendliness/kindness and compassion are about extending people the love, respect, and understanding you believe they deserve (even if they don’t feel the same way). And, often, as Ted Lasso demonstrates, when you extend people those courtesies it turns them into better people as well!