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Masculinity in Football: Ted Lasso Examines Dangerous Stereotypes

Ted Lasso has lessons on self-improvement for us all

Ted Lasso is playfully pointing both of his index fingers over a desk
Ted, Ted Lasso, Apple TV+

When I first started watching Ted Lasso I wasn’t convinced it would be for me. I went in with low expectations but it didn’t take long for that to change. Ted (Jason Sudeikis) charmed me the way he charms his supporting characters and I quickly learned there was more to this series than cheap laughs at the expense of footballers. Ted Lasso is a quick comedy that provides social commentary with a hint of athletic adrenaline. 

Ted Lasso is about a divorcée (Hannah Waddingham) who becomes the owner of AFC Richmond as a consequence of her divorce. Set on ruining the club that her ex-husband loved so much, Rebecca hires an American coach with no understanding of the game and no experience of English sport. What she didn’t bank on, however, was Coach Lasso’s determination, heart, and ability to keep faith through hard times.

It is incredibly refreshing to see a portrayal of emotive masculinity as a positive force instead of a weakness—especially in a sporting context. As the series progresses it becomes clear that providing a framework to demonstrate the healthy dynamics that are possible in male-dominated athletic environments was a vital part of its creation. 

In Ted Lasso there are no good or bad characters (except perhaps Rupert (Anthony Head)), instead just characters who are all at different points of their journeys. The series tackles a range of social and political issues, but what it examines most strikingly is the presentation of masculinity in male sport.  

Many of the judgements, expectations, and stereotypes that affect footballers also extend to football supporters. Football fans are often tarnished with a reputation of thuggery, male violence, and drunken disorder. Masculinity has become a negative and controlling concept that dictates the way men playing and supporting football are expected to feel or behave. Ted is a sensitive character, and not one we would associate with a sport that looks so poisonous from the outside. It is through his unique approaches that we see how much more there is to sport than the harsh facades it creates in those who enjoy it. 

While there are some positive role models in men’s football, these represent a minority of what we are exposed to in the media. Marcus Rashford, of Manchester United, recently made headlines for his drive to make sure that children living in poverty had access to meals in school. He faced a lot of abuse and backlash for representing this cause, with many trolls claiming that he should “stick to football”, or suggesting that this cause was in some way misaligned from his “duties” as a professional athlete. Just this week 17-year-old Jake Daniels, who plays for Blackpool, became the only openly gay professional footballer currently playing in Britain. He is the first professional footballer to come out in the UK since the foundation was laid by Justin Fashanu, who died in 1998. In both of these cases, the support from fellow footballers has been immense, but despite these glimmers of humanity, acceptance, and hope, there is a long way to go before our reality truly matches the tender atmosphere of Ted Lasso. 

The first season emphasises the unhealthy patterns of masculinity in British football. Indeed, even in Ted Lasso’s female characters we observe the adoption and then rejection of detrimental, and traditionally masculine, traits and behavioural patterns in attempts to be seen as powerful and worthy. This is especially present in Rebecca, who at first creates a harsher, colder, more business-like version of herself in order to be respected. She is short with her team and sets herself above them as if she is competing with them instead of handling the same team. It is clear that she is trying to emulate Rupert in some ways because she wants to prove that she can be as powerful as him, instead of just being herself.

As Season 1 progresses, however, we observe the transformation of Rebecca from a vengeful, bitter divorcée to a thriving, happy business owner after realising that allowing herself to be kind and funny creates better relationships within the club’s management. We see Jamie (Phil Dunster) mellow out and let go of some of his pride, cockiness, and selfishness. Nate (Nick Mohammed) blossoms from the shy locker room boy into a valued and respected member of the AFC Richmond coaching team, and Roy (Brett Goldstein), who initially leans into being gruff and stern to retain the respect of his colleagues, begins to introduce sensitivity into his handling of difficult situations. 

In Season 2 things become more nuanced and we are introduced to new characters—including a therapist and an abusive parent. Roy learns to forgive and to talk about things that are upsetting him with no intention to find immediate solutions, Nate is becoming increasingly big for his boots now that he is an accepted member of the team, Jamie re-evaluates his childhood and lets go of the residual hurt that caused him to lash out before, and Ted starts to take his own advice and tackle his own residual demons. 

But what is really interesting is the setting in which we are observing these characters develop. Men in sports are often seen as strong, ‘masculine’, invincible, and within this are not allowed the space to simultaneously be struggling, destructible, and delicate—in other words, human. 

Ted Lasso is the first series I have seen that has taken men’s mental health in sports seriously, and shown us what it would look like if these men had the space to be all of those things. The characters all have very real flaws and insecurities and are initially unnerved by their new coach’s brazenly open approach. Ted is overtly flawed, boldly optimistic, endlessly encouraging, unapologetic, and relentlessly challenges his team to believe in themselves. They see him as cheesy, inexperienced, irritating, and underqualified; they rebel against his authority until they start to see the value in his unwavering positivity and support. These are men who are not used to their sport making space for their feelings, despair, and emotional discontent. 

As time progresses, the athletes begin to thrive in the nurturing environment that Ted has cultivated for them. By encouraging them to evaluate their personal well-being, relationships with one another, and appreciation for the roots of their desire to play for their club, Ted creates a close-knit and loving team. Their eventual subsequent success reflects the changes that Ted has made to the club, but it is also emphasised that the perseverance, team spirit, and hope between the characters when things go badly is just as important. 

Most interesting are the character studies of Roy and Jamie. Roy, who is the oldest player on the team, sees Jamie as his nemesis; Jamie is young, fit, talented, and, most irritatingly, Jamie is obnoxiously aware of his potential. He treats Roy with contempt and is unkind about his age. Under the eye of Ted, who is careful not to push too hard, the men gradually begin to show respect for each other and see things from the other’s perspective. The initial friction between them grows when Roy becomes one of the team’s coaches, but begins to fade when the pair realise that, instead of trying to compete with one another, they actually each have lessons to learn from the other. 

This is brought to a head when Jamie’s dad (Kieran O’Brien) barges into the locker room after a bad match and begins to verbally assault Jamie. There had already been clues that Jamie had a difficult upbringing, and that part of his selfishness was an attempt to look independent and successful to his father, but this was the first real interaction that we saw. After Coach Beard manhandles James Tartt out of the locker room Jamie’s teammates are silent and in shock, and it is Roy who walks up to him to offer him a hug. This was a truly heart-warming scene and marked a turning point for the two men.

Throughout Season 2 we see Jamie flourish. He has learned that teamwork is a strength and he is making an effort with those around him. He still makes mistakes but he feels more comfortable leaning on his teammates for support, consequently becoming happier and more accepted and supported by them in turn. 

Roy’s character is a little bit more complex. Initially perhaps the most guarded character, Roy learns the value of the Diamond Dogs—the coaches’ unofficial support group. Their no judgement approach and ability to listen without interfering gives Roy a newfound happiness and contentment to sit and experience his emotions. He seems surprised by how much this space improves his mood, and it is clear that he appreciates this new closeness with his male colleagues.

He also remains modest and grounded by his new-found abilities to evaluate his relationships from an emotional and not just logical point of view, something he partially learns from Ted’s lessons on getting through to Jamie, and partially figures out on his own after being given space to feel his emotions. He has the revelation that his girlfriend, Keeley (Juno Temple), doesn’t need him, and it isn’t until Keeley tells him that she wants him that he realises the power of being wanted without being needed. Reflected here is his acknowledgement that in past relationships he has been taught to be a provider. This may be his first experience in a complementary relationship with a partner who has healthy emotional boundaries and expectations. This is alien to him as it allows him to be himself in a way that still feels unnatural. This examination of the social pressures faced by men, and male athletes in particular, is unnerving but necessary. Keeley, a character who started off as a prop to demonstrate the misogyny that was rife in the club before Ted arrived, is now another emotional safe place for Roy as the two grow together and learn how to be the best versions of themselves.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ECVxKMBJjJA

Early in the second season, therapist Dr. Sharon Fieldstone (Sarah Niles) is called to work at AFC Richmond to help a player who is disheartened after missing a crucial penalty. Soon after her arrival, more members of the team begin to seek out her help. Most surprisingly, it is Ted who struggles the most to open up to the idea of having therapy. After suffering a panic attack, Ted tries to seek help but finds that he is unable and uncomfortable talking to Sharon. Seeing Ted himself suffer and struggle to voice and address his emotions obliterates the notion that you are either someone who is able to be emotionally open or you are not. Despite being the positive, light-hearted, emotionally intelligent influence, Ted remains flawed. He teaches us that, with work, we can all develop into mentally healthier versions of ourselves. 

Throughout both seasons so far, media influence and toxicity is a theme that comes up in several places. Most significantly, though, when Nate gives information about Ted’s mental health struggles to a journalist. Predictably, this leads to derogatory headlines and ill-treatment of the coach. Nate, for all his back-stabbing and superiority, is still treated with kindness by Ted, who refuses to treat him like a baddie for his cruelty. Demonstrating an admirable amount of restraint and maturity, Ted recognises that shaming him, while deserved, is not the right approach for someone like Nate. He believes in the goodness in him and hopes that he will come forward with an apology on his own terms. This is another reminder that the way we might expect a man high up in the sports industry to respond—with harsh words, a display of dominance, or perhaps violence—is not necessarily what is best for team unity or growth, even in a situation like this. This challenges what we think strength is, and asks us to reflect on when standing up for ourselves is crucial, and when it is harmful—no matter how justified.

It is this compassion for others that brought the team together and inspired Rebecca to become a true member and advocate of the Richmond club. Although not free of his own struggles, Ted never gives up on his moral compass and willingness to do right by others. He continues to allow people the space to grow instead of cutting them down when they make mistakes—even when those mistakes betray him at their very core. 

Ted reminds us that it is kindness not hostility or punishment that cements relationships, and that there is always space for self-reflection. Ted encourages those he coaches to do the right thing, but he does not punish them when they fail. His methods focus only on positive reinforcement, and this removes the fear of making mistakes that leads to defensive displays of aggression. 

This presentation of alternative masculinity in male-dominated sport is incredibly valuable. For young men, this demonstration of healthy communication, positive personal discussion, and gentle teaching is an excellent example of what society should be aiming for within sports culture. The framework this show provides teaches us that there is more to sports than the traditionally admired and frankly unhealthy displays of ‘strength’, and allows us to see deeper and realise that actually everybody has struggles and needs space to vocalise and address them appropriately. It can only be hoped that sports culture continues to change in the real world as we continue to promote mental well-being in sports. 

And, of course, much as Ted is somewhat of a hero, he too makes mistakes. In one of the final episodes of Season 2, Ted admits to his team that he hid from them the panic attacks he had begun to experience. He acknowledges that the openness between them should go both ways, and demonstrates that he is sorry and takes responsibility. His honesty and past teaching means that the players know how to respond to this, and do by expressing their support and care for him. The representation of healthy emotional dynamics made for bittersweet viewing and the hope that real life sports will soon turn this corner. 

Masculinity in football is taking a new form—a healthier and more educated form. We are moving away from the structures that have taught athletes to present themselves as emotionless, indestructible, and harsh in order to fight against the stigma of appearing humanly flawed. The way Ted Lasso teaches that perfectionism is not a goal, rather an unhappy battle for meaningless merit for a societal system that serves nobody. One positive role model can turn a suffocating and tight-lipped community into a nurturing and happier one simply by being present and by being accepting. Players begin to see themselves as worthy in a secure way and not a competitive way, without the obstruction of self-expression being seen as weak. You can feel the relief of the characters once they come out of hiding and into their true selves.  

I hope that we continue to see positive portrayals of masculinity in sport on screen, and that Ted Lasso continues its path toward character redemption, gentle education, and, of course, witty one-liners. 

There will be a Season 3 of Ted Lasso, and I for one look forward to it. 

Written by Anna Green

Politics graduate based in the UK. I'm passionate about writing so I can usually be found buried in ink and paper. Proud writer for 25YL!

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