This article first appeared in the Postmodern Realities column of the CHRISTIAN RESEARCH JOURNAL, volume 44, number 01 (2021). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
The best sports stories are the ones 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 the particular sport could be swapped out for practically any other related discipline, and the heart of the story would remain the same. This is the case with the Apple TV+ sitcom series Ted Lasso.1 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 elements of the fruit of the Spirit, and I certainly didn’t anticipate writing those words about a TV-MA original streaming sports comedy that aired in the year 2020. But in a time when — in the eyes of so many — winning has become the ultimate morality, and the struggle to gain and maintain power has turned otherwise objective standards of goodness into subjective opinion, we all need more of what Ted Lasso is dishing out.
“Wayward Ted’s” Wayward Team. The titular character Ted Lasso (played by Jason Sudeikis) is an American football coach who gets hired to manage a failing London football (soccer, for Americans) team called AFC Richmond. And he doesn’t know a thing about soccer, English culture, the insults levied against him from the club’s fan base — or the fact that the owner of the team, Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham), intentionally hired him to tank AFC Richmond. Rebecca is embroiled in a revenge scheme against her cheating ex-husband (who loves AFC Richmond), and Ted and the team are pawns in her plot. None of this matters, though, because, for 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 at the airport, to the kit-boy “Nate the Great” (Nick Mohammed), to Rebecca herself.
In her elaborate revenge plot against her ex-husband, Rebecca 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 demoralize the seemingly unflappable coach. But when Ted spends the day with the journalist, he wins the man over. Instead of writing a hatchet piece, the journalist writes a profile titled “Wayward Ted,” which balances honesty with glowing, almost begrudging admiration for Ted. It’s true that Ted is unprepared and lacks experience to coach a team like AFC Richmond, the columnist writes, but “in an industry that celebrates ego, Ted reins his in.”2 The columnist seems assured that Ted will fail as a football coach — but he wishes him well, nonetheless.
Ego and virtue make poor bedfellows, and in the macho world of sports, ego usually wins out. Rebecca was clearly counting on Ted being driven by ego — predictable and easy to manipulate to her benefit. But Ted rejects ego and chooses virtue again and again, and a virtuous person not only serves a higher law but also sacrifices himself for the good of others. Much of the story is focused on the tension of knowing Rebecca wants Ted to fail, but the writers make it clear that Rebecca’s cruelty toward Ted stems from the pain of her abandonment and divorce rather than any deep-seated animosity toward Ted himself. Ted sees through Rebecca’s vitriol to her pain and loves her and champions the best for her despite everything she throws at him. He is not demoralized by the “Wayward Ted” 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 also important. It would be easy to view a character like Ted Lasso as stupid, and it would be even easier to play him that way. Jason Sudeikis (who created a version of the character back in 2013 for an NBC Sports promo3 and went on to write the show around the character) 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. Ted is just exceptionally good at his job: coaching people (even if he doesn’t know anything about European football). But far more important than his intelligence is the fact that 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.
The Counter-cultural Manliness of Ted Lasso. 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 before. In how Ted 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. These story elements are why I can’t help but think of the fruit of the Spirit — “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22–23 ESV) — when I think of Ted Lasso.
Embodying elements of the fruit of the Spirit doesn’t guarantee a perfect life, and there are few things about Ted’s life that are perfect as he clings to virtues such as kindness, goodness, and gentleness. But neither does Ted Lasso fall into the trap of portraying Ted as some Pollyanna who succeeds 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 his people, all the “feel good” moments don’t necessarily correlate to perfect moments on the pitch. 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 does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Cor. 13:4–5 NIV). 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. By the end of season one, it holds his entire team together, as well.
Ted gradually wins over everyone, from the players to Nate, to Rebecca, and all those in between. When he wrongs others, he confesses without making excuses for his behavior. When he needs to, he readily asks forgiveness. His influence leads those who betrayed him to confess their own sins to him — sins he forgives without question. 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 a player on the bench against the advice of his coaching staff. To Ted, the person is more important than the outcome of the game. He sees the value of all people who cross his path, and he upholds their humanity.
A life lived like Ted Lasso lives his life really is “wayward,” because he 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. Anger is quick and easy, but “a soft answer turns away wrath” (Prov. 15:1 ESV). So also do soft lives lived according to the fruit of the Spirit not just “turn away wrath” but dignify the lives of those around us.
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 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” (1 Cor. 13:7 NIV) — it’s secondary to celebrating a character who, in 2020 and now in 2021, embodies so much of what Jesus taught us to do and think and be. In a world teeming with calls to greatness, Ted Lasso is exactly the sort of story we need to show us a little bit of what greatness really looks like.—K. B. Hoyle
K. B. Hoyle is a former classical educator, a columnist for Christ and Pop Culture, and an award-winning novelist. She lives in Alabama with her husband and four sons.
- Created by Bill Lawrence, Jason Sudeikis, Joe Kelly, and Brendan Hunt.
- Ted Lasso, season 1, episode 3, “Trent Crimm: The Independent,” directed by Tom Marshall, written by Jane Becker, aired August 14, 2020, on Apple TV+.
- Kevin Baxter, “‘Ted Lasso’ Was Icing on a $250-Million Deal. Now He Has His Own TV Show,” Los Angeles Times, August 14, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/entertainmentarts/tv/story/2020-08-14/jason-sudeikis-ted-lasso-english-premier-league-apple-tv.