Why We Need Ted Lasso and Philosophy
David & Marybeth Baggett
The growing popularity of Apple TV’s Ted Lasso is a bit of a surprise, given its inauspicious beginnings as a satirical NBC Sports promotion back in 2013. Premiering last August, this breakout hit has now garnered two Golden Globe nominations—for the show and lead actor—and has continued gaining fame through word of mouth.
But those who have watched the show, featuring biscuits-with-the-boss and exorcisms of training rooms, will find its defiance of expectations more than fitting. Like a candy bar little Ronnie Fouch might offer you on the playground, it is so much more than meets the eye.
Ted Lasso is a comedy about a cheerful, charming, and eminently optimistic amateur American football coach (played by SNL alum Jason Sudeikis) enlisted to coach AFC Richmond, a professional soccer (“football”) team in England—the land of garbage water, hazardous street crossings, boots and chips and crisps. Along with his friend and sidekick, the aptly named Coach Beard, Ted embraces the challenge with characteristic enthusiasm. The game, like the grass on the pitch, is “the same yet different.”
“A metaphor?” Beard asks.
“You know it, baby,” Ted replies. The quip, we soon learn, has serious implications, as the show challenges viewers to look beyond surface differences and misleading appearances that too often divide or prove destructive.
For a show in so many ways easy to watch—usually light and lots of fun—Ted Lasso features far more nuance, depth, and philosophical resonance than one might expect. The nature of true success, sportsmanship, revenge versus justice, the importance of friendship, the imperative of respect for persons, humility, leadership, identity, virtue ethics, courage, journalistic ethics, and what love looks like: these are all topics broached by the show, and a whole lot more.
David French is particularly struck by the forgiveness motif, particularly Ted’s forgiveness of team owner Rebecca—played by the enchanting and magnificently talented actress/singer Hannah Waddingham (known for her role as the Wicked Witch of the West both in London and on Broadway). For Michaela Flack, a different aspect of Ted’s character comes to the fore. As she puts it, Ted believes in you.
This issue of belief functions as a central motif of the show, a notoriously rich philosophical concept. What exactly constitutes belief? What we honestly assent to verbally? What our actions reveal? Our dispositions? Can we believe a proposition without accepting it, or vice versa? Fine questions all, but the show usually approaches belief from the angle of “believing in” oneself or others.
Ted is adamant about believing in the best of people, without being blind to corruption or cruelty. Facing much resistance, even from his own team members, Ted is undaunted. Early on, in response to Captain Roy Kent’s meanspirited barbs, Ted confides in Beard, “If he’s mad now, wait until we win him over.” Beard offers a signature cryptic reply: “He’ll be furious.” The question is not if, but when.
Ted is an unpretentious, easy-to-underestimate coach who has a singular brilliance for building community, and he cares about more than winning. In his unorthodoxy and prodigious emotional intelligence, he refuses to think of sports as a zero-sum game. He thinks of winning in terms other than scoring more than the opponent, and sees his job as helping his players become the best versions of themselves on and off the field. His coaching style is as holistic and his personality as winsome as his character is wholesome.
Watching Ted is a little like watching Mister Rogers as a soccer coach—an intentional decision by Sudeikis—and how can you go wrong with that? From the first episode, the importance of believing in oneself is on full display. This took a quiet self-assurance and laudable courage in the face of chronic condescension and a chorus of derogatory epithets from “wanker” to “Ronald McDonald.”
In the locker room Ted posts a sign emblazoned “BELIEVE,” and when asked if he believes in ghosts, Ted immediately replies, to Rebecca’s stymied response of incomprehension, “I do. But more importantly they need to believe in themselves.”
This playful equivocation on belief-that and belief-in brings to mind a funny exchange from our friend Jonny Walls’ movie script Couch Survivor: one character, hoping for a bit of affirmation, asks another, “Do you believe in me?”
“Of course!” comes the gentle, sympathetic reply. “But I can also see you.”
Some might suppose that believing in another person, or a particular outcome, or oneself, is more a psychological matter than a philosophical one, but we suspect this is a rather false dichotomy. William James, for example, had a penchant for sharing insights with both philosophical and psychological import. In his discussion of “precursive faith,” he challenged the notion that all of our beliefs need to be based on adequate prior evidence. Precursive faith, as he understood it, involves believing ahead of the evidence, which on occasion seems permissible, even important.
Take social coordination cases, where a group acting in unison (and only acting in unison) can, say, stop a single terrorist (or, to use his example, train robber). Such united action requires boldly acting without the assurance of cooperation ahead of time.
Or in the logic of personal relations, we often recognize the need to function as more than strict evidentialists. Starting romantic relationships, for example, may require taking an initiative to grow a relationship before knowing for sure that our advances will be reciprocated.
Such dynamics remind us of the need to qualify our accounts of belief—and what justified beliefs call for—depending on the nature of the context. This certainly has psychological implications, but it is also interesting for philosophers.
Some of the best examples of James’s precursive faith come from sports. AFC Richmond’s believing in themselves, that they stood a chance against Everton, despite their decades-long track record of losses against them, is just such an example. To have a chance at winning, a team may well have to believe they can do it, on at least some level or to at least some small degree—and believe before having decisive evidence that they can. Such “belief” will not ensure the desired result, but it may well be needed for its very possibility.
Such belief in is closely related to hope, one of the classical theological virtues, another recurring theme of the show. Rather than embracing the pessimistic mantra cynically repeated by Richmond’s fans that “it’s the hope that kills you”—and thus lowering expectations and expecting the worst—Ted’s irrepressible optimism retains faith in faith and soaring hope, a hope that may or may not disappoint. Soccer, like life itself, involves risk, and to avoid risk by not playing is too steep a price to pay.
Those are just a few of the many rich philosophical dimensions of a show that, of all years, came out in 2020, a rather ignominious moment, most would agree. When anti-intellectualism and public acrimony, rampant pessimism and ubiquitous grudges held sway, a show like this was just the countercultural antidote we needed.
Like Ted would say, it’s like we fell through a lucky tree, hit every limb, and landed in a pile of money and Sour Patch Kids.
David Baggett is professor of philosophy and Director of the Center for Moral Apologetics at Houston Baptist University. He’s also the executive editor at MoralApologetics.com.
Marybeth Baggett is professor of English at Houston Baptist University and co-author of The Morals of the Story (IVP Academic) and At the Bend of the River Grand (Emeth Press).