My academic inspiration this summer came from an unlikely source: Apple TV’s Ted Lasso. I know, curveball, right? But I can explain.
Two years ago, my husband David and I had just settled into our new home in Houston. We were both assuming new positions at a new school and, like everyone else, navigating the challenges of the pandemic. This charming fish-out-of-water tale of a folksy American football coach taking charge of AFC Richmond, a premiere league London soccer club, was a welcome distraction.1 More than that: we found the show’s countercultural celebration of life and friendship and human dignity heartwarming and inspiring. Ted Lasso is a bit like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood for adults.2 It’s not a perfect show,3 but its hopeful spirit and joyful disposition heartened us.
David and I weren’t alone. Jason Sudeikis’s depiction of the guileless Ted whose tenacious optimism softens even the hardest of hearts captivated audiences, so much so that it was renewed early on for two more seasons. Popularity, of course, does not equal substance, and Ted Lasso has its detractors. Even fans may confuse the show’s sweetness with superficiality. Emily St. James at Vox chalks the Lasso phenomenon up to collective wishful thinking, suggesting people tune in because they long for the comforting, feel-good world the show portrays.4 The implication is that such a world does not exist, nor can it.
But further viewing convinced us that there is wisdom in Ted Lasso that we should examine: the nature of true success, the value of friendship, issues of justice, the possibility of forgiveness, the role of leadership, questions of journalistic and sexual ethics, the importance of community, the contours of belief, the possibilities of redemption, and more. All of that wrapped in a delightfully entertaining sitcom with a devoted fanbase.
As an English professor with a bent toward apologetics, I find that quite the combo, medium drink or not. David, a philosopher and my colleague at Houston Baptist University, agreed. And so, to unearth the show’s insights and celebrate its accomplishments, we submitted a proposal (and secured a contract) for a volume on Ted Lasso with the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series, edited by William Irwin. David has edited collections in Irwin’s series before, but this was my first experience. I loved every minute of it. We did the bulk of editing this summer and are now waiting for Season 3 before we finish the manuscript for publication next year.
Throughout this labor of love, I’ve learned quite a bit that has ready application to teaching. Here are just three takeaways:
You do not want to judge this book by its cover.
People are always underestimating Ted. Richmond fans demand a more traditional (and knowledgeable) coach, and Ted’s players find his unflagging enthusiasm Pollyannaish. Predictably, Ted proves them wrong, but in a charming, winsome way that encourages them not to settle for first impressions. People are always more than meets the eye, a truism humorously but tellingly demonstrated when Ted thrusts the scruffy busker Cam Cole on stage to perform at a swanky charity auction (“For the Children”). As that scene suggests, we miss out when we fail to pay others the respect and attention they deserve.
There’s a similar conviction underlying the philosophy and pop culture movement Irwin launched back in 1999 with Seinfeld and Philosophy.5 “Philosophy is everywhere,” Irwin asserts, and the Blackwell series’ ever-growing roster of titles (and proliferation of similar series) attests to this truth.6 Using Ted Lasso to explore philosophical ideas enriches our appreciation of the show and the philosophy. I saw this firsthand in the work of our contributors. They all impressed me with their careful analysis and nuanced, thoughtful arguments.
As a non-philosopher, I learned quite a good deal about egoism, Daoism, Stoicism, Aristotelian friendship, virtue ethics, precursive faith, existentialism, and more. More impressive is that I deeply enjoyed learning about this material outside my field. Going forward, I hope to offer that same kind of experience for my own students who may be struggling with material they find boring or irrelevant. Ted Lasso reminds us that if we train ourselves to “be curious, not judgmental,”7 we might be surprised by what we find.
Success is not about the wins and losses.
Ted’s approach to coaching ruffles more than a few feathers. From the start, we see him engaging with his players as people first, athletes second. When he introduces a suggestion box, veteran hardman Roy Kent derisively mocks the move: “We’re middle of the table, we’ve lost three of four, and you wanna know if the snacks in the locker room are tasty enough?” (“Biscuits”). Still, Ted persists. He attends to his team’s emotional and psychological needs—buying them books to stir their imaginations, celebrating the birthday of a player far from home, fixing the shower’s water pressure. As he tells journalist Trent Crimm, his goal as coach is primarily about “helping these young fellas be the best version of themselves on and off the field” (“Trent Crimm: The Independent”).
Watching Ted live out this conviction is inspiring, especially insofar as his nurturing approach enables the team to flourish in a variety of ways. It turns out that treating people as ends in themselves may well lead to success in other arenas. Ted’s example loomed large as David and I edited this project. It encouraged us to honor the writers we were working with and do what we could to bring out their best, to help them strengthen their own arguments, even those at odds or in tension with our intuitions.
Ted’s coaching strategy easily transfers to the classroom as well, reminding us as teachers to see our students first as people, with their own distinctive gifts, backgrounds, and needs. Their status as our students is not unimportant of course, but that role flows from their humanity, and it’s our obligation not to let that get lost in the daily grind or crush of the semester’s demands and harried schedule.
Every choice is a chance.
As the previous point suggests, character formation is a driving concern of Ted Lasso. Very few characters are static. Most are becoming better people, primarily through the influence of community and the supportive atmosphere Ted engenders. Team owner Rebecca Welton and Richmond star Jamie Tartt are dramatic examples of this positive transformation. Sadly, others, like kitman-turned-coach Nate Shelley and Richmond’s former owner Rupert Mannion, are becoming worse. Either way, the show consistently holds out the possibility, and hope, for improvement.
Ted sets that expectation when he first enters Richmond’s clubhouse: “I do love a locker room,” he tells his assistant coach Beard, “Smells like potential” (“Pilot”). And Ted does what he can to draw out possibilities in those around him, but he also recognizes that any potential positive change can result only from the other’s will to effect it.
As teachers, we too can and should believe in our students’ potential for improvement and retain hope for its fruition. Our choices matter. They accrue to our benefit or our detriment. But it’s helpful to keep in mind and to remind our students that we are not fixed in place. We must find ways to encourage them to thrive, not settle for mediocrity, and to strive for their best.
I concede that audiences may be drawn to Ted Lasso for its optimistic outlook. And that might look to many like pure fantasy, setting viewers up for an ungrounded “hope that kills you,” to borrow the Richmond fans’ mantra. Even still, teachers, especially Christian teachers who believe that students are made in the image of God, don’t need to be persuaded of the truth of Ted’s convictions about the worth and potential of others and our obligations as leaders. But we do need what Ted offers: examples to hear and heed and inspiration to be the best versions of our teaching selves.
- Football is, of course, the more culturally appropriate term here, but for this blog, I’ll use soccer to differentiate between Ted’s past and present jobs. The culture clash invoked by the football/soccer divide, however, is very much part of the show’s charms.
- This connection to Fred Rogers was an intentional move by Sudeikis. Potential viewers should be aware that the show is not suitable for children, given the ubiquitous profanity, adult themes, and especially its lamentable sexual ethic in patent tension with its ostensible recognition of the value of others. In this sense the show is more a capitulation to culture and its desacralization of sexuality than countercultural.
- In this Christianity Today podcast, I offer more substantive analysis and critique of the show: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/podcasts/quick-to-listen/ted-lasso-nate-villain-redemption-podcast.html.
- Emily St. James, “Why Ted Lasso became the hit that put AppleTV+ on the map.” Vox, February 24, 2021, Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/culture/22290391/ted-lasso-explained-apple-tv-plus-jason-sudeikis.
- Seinfeld and Philosophy was published with Open Court, but Bill has since taken his series to Wiley-Blackwell.
- William Irwin, “Letter from the Series Editor,” AndPhilosophy.com, https://andphilosophy.com/about/letter-from-the-editor/.
- This Lasso-ism, wrongly attributed to Walt Whitman, surfaces in a crucial scene of Season 1. Dan Evon of Snopes discusses it here: https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/be-curious-not-judgmental-walt-whitman/.