Insurrection, Ted Lasso, and the limits of empathy

January 7, 2021

This week, an armed mob breached the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to disrupt the Congressional process certifying the 2020 election results. As I scrolled through images of police taking selfies with the terrorists and pulling aside barriers to let them through and then making sure they didn’t slip on their way back down the front steps, naturally my thoughts turned to Ted Lasso.

The Co-Pilot and I plowed through the whole series on an Apple TV+ one-week free trial. Just about everything I’ve read praising Ted Lasso is correct, insofar as it’s funny, thoughtful, and presents a hopeful fantasy of what would happen if a Fred Rogers-esque figure was given a prominent leadership position. (Somewhat spoiler-y discussion of the show to follow.)

But throughout our binge, I kept thinking about my sophomore year religion teacher’s question: What is the only unforgivable sin? One traditional answer is suicide, because in a certain moral framework it feels right to draw a concrete line about what kind of action is so transgressive that even the most loving God imaginable wouldn’t forgive. My teacher dispensed with that by asking if a parent might forgive their child for suicide, and we arrived at yes, of course we could imagine many parents continuing to love their children no matter what actions they might take, so why would God turn His back on someone who died by suicide?

There is an unforgivable sin, my teacher contended, and that is refusing to be forgiven. In his formulation, forgiveness is an interaction and must be accepted in order to be complete. Therefore, God, or my parent, might offer forgiveness, but it’s not fulfilled unless I accept it. Your mileage may vary on what constitutes acceptance, but authentic acceptance of another’s offer of forgiveness certainly implies some level of reconciliation and offering something back to the one doing the forgiving.

Ted Lasso, the character, is no saint, just as Joanne Rogers has insisted we remember about her husband. However, he is relentlessly optimistic, takes accountability for his actions, and practices empathy as a way of life that makes him a unique entry in the American fictional coaches canon. Contrast Ted with Eric Taylor, from Friday Night Lights. Taylor loved his players in his way, and went to extraordinary lengths to help them become better football players, and therefore a better football team, and therefore feel better about their lives, and therefore become better people overall. But a central tension of that show is that Taylor is ultimately doing all this for his own glory and advancement, to the detriment of his home life and without questioning whether high school football ought to be the institution into which his Texas town puts all its energy.

Ted doesn’t have that problem because he explicitly states that winning isn’t his primary concern. Where Taylor sees winning as a goal because it’s evidence of improvement and effort paying off (and bolsters his standing in the Texas football world), Ted sees his players’ and staffers’ personal improvement as the goal and winning as a happy byproduct.

Ted Lasso sets some premises that put Ted in position to enact this fantasy at a Premier League club. First is AFC Richmond owner Rebecca’s plan to purposely be relegated to stick it to her ex-husband, a plot seemingly straight out of Major League. That provides pretext for why she hired Ted at all, and provides her reason for keeping him as manager even as the team is losing matches. Of course, when AFC Richmond inevitably starts winning a few games and everyone realizes the players love him, Rebecca has to navigate sticking with her original plan and how much she straight-up likes Ted and appreciates having him around.

The other major premise the show includes is subtler, and it’s that the key characters are open to having their hard hearts softened by someone offering them empathy. We can start with Roy Kent, who starts the show lamenting that he’ll potentially end his career with a club managed by Ronald McDonald. Over time, Ted’s decency activates Roy’s dormant decency, which inspires Roy to empathize with Nate, Jamie, and others, and that leads Roy to leverage his standing as a footballing legend in his twilight to help enact a respectful and productive team culture.

But what if Roy didn’t have any innate decency to activate? What if Jamie’s tough-guy pose wasn’t a pose, and he wasn’t really a guy who just wanted to make his mother proud? What if they didn’t see Ted as incompetent and a joke, but instead saw him as weak? Ted could empathize and offer them forgiveness for their past behavior all he wanted, but if they believed Ted was weak, that weakness is a moral failing, that nothing he could do would help them, and that the way to get what they wanted is by crushing him, Ted wouldn’t have enough time or the proper tools to show them the error of their ways. For the show to work, these characters have to accept what Ted is offering, and the show dramatizes their acceptance in a satisfying way, but the players weren’t particularly tough nuts to crack because they weren’t happy to begin with.

Ted Lasso also makes the choice to avoid making overt references to political leanings, because it would be very easy to lose the story’s focus with those kinds of complications. We don’t hear what Rebecca, a white woman who came from wealth and remains wealthy, thinks of Brexit, for example. We don’t know what Roy, a South Londoner with a “kind of racist” dad and now a wealthy professional footballer, thinks of taxes or immigration policy. Ted, himself, sounds like he has a vaguely Texan accent and last coached American football in Wichita, Kansas. What does he think about Brexit? Trump? The NHS?

By his actions, Ted is a collectivist. No man is an island. Everyone’s actions affect everyone else. When you’re selfish on the pitch, or even off, you’re bringing down your teammates. Moreover, your teammates are people who deserve respect and care. Therefore, your responsibility as a teammate is to be the kind of person who authentically cares about other people, which naturally leads to making decisions that are in the best interests of the team.

There’s an American tendency to attribute outcomes to individuals’ actions and resist explanations that rely on collective action or collective burden, mainly held by conservatives, which Ted’s actions suggest he would reject out of hand because it’s antithetical to his coaching tenets. Moreover, lots of American football coaches preach responsibility to the collective, but enforce it through retribution and fear that the individual might lose privileges and opportunities if he doesn’t do his part to maintain the effectiveness of the whole, which doesn’t fit Ted, either, because it relies on coercion rather than self-discovery. That is, Ted isn’t an authoritarian.

What would Ted do if Roy politely explained to everyone in the dressing room that the immigrants on the team are exceptions, but almost every other immigrant to the U.K. is leeching off hardworking Britons who deserve better than to be subjected to the unwashed Asian hordes? I don't know, because that's the sort of thing that an empathetic and actively anti-racist leader would want to nip in the bud, but is also mainstream enough in the U.S. and the U.K. to be within the bounds of civil debate.

Ted Lasso is a pretty great pitch for living an empathetic life, but its near-total omission of hot-button political viewpoints, lowering the stakes considerably, is a necessary creative choice because it would illustrate the limits of empathy and undermine the main thrust of the show.

When the mob of of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, the Capitol Police certainly should have been much more prepared for a violent encounter, given that right-wing agitators were posting their plans for weeks beforehand, but the best time to head them off was weeks, months, even years ago, when a Ted-like person who individual agitators respected might have been able to have extensive conversations in which the agitators discovered for themselves that their contempt is destructive and detrimental to the whole. If there’s someone you care about heading down this kind of path, and you feel you’re up for it, it’s possible to get acquainted with persuasion techniques and engage with that person to gradually guide them out of their spiral, though it’s not for everyone and it’s exhausting as hell.

So what about the people who actually did breach the Capitol? Should we try to get them in the same room with a bunch of real-world Ted Lasso equivalents and let them seek redemption?

I don’t think so. Because Ted’s shit only works if people want to be better than they are on some level, and these people unequivocally don’t want to be anything other than what they are: nihilists intent on grinding other people to dust for their own gratification. There’s no point in trying to empathize with someone like Nick Fuentes because he doesn’t want me and my friends and family to live peacefully as we are, and that means he wouldn’t genuinely accept my offer of empathy. As far as I’m concerned, right-thinking society and responsible companies (tech and otherwise) ought to shun him and his ilk to the point that they can’t do anything until they choose to change.

The Ted Lasso fantasy is good. Everyday life would be a lot better if we all lived a little closer to the Ted model. But remember: As with forgiveness, it only works if the other person accepts it. These insurrectionists don’t want to engage with us, so we’re not obligated to help them see that their actions have monstrous consequences for many of us.

Shut them down and walk away.

(Photo: “42.ProudBoys.USSC.WDC.6January2021” by Elvert Barnes, taken in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2021. Used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.)