Jon Gruden is yesterday’s coach. Ted Lasso is tomorrow’s.
What the contrast can teach us.
This week, during the NFL’s marquee Monday Night Football game, drama unfolded in the league as Jon Gruden, Head Coach of the Las Vegas Raiders, announced his resignation. The not-so-surprising decision was sparked after the New York Times uncovered emails the coach had sent over seven years, in which he used racist, homophobic, and misogynistic language directed at players, referees, the Executive Director of the NFL Players Association, and the league’s commissioner.
This occurs on the backdrop of desperate attempts by America’s most profitable professional sports league’s to launder its tarnished image.
Since Colin Kaepernick unveiled the league’s deep-rooted racism, the NFL’s has hired Jay-Z to lead a brand turnaround. During the 2020 season, the league stenciled “End Racism” in its end zones and, now, players have the option to wear decals on their helmets that read “Black Lives Matter,” “Stop Hate,” or any other social justice message the league has pre approved. And on Monday, as the news of Gruden’s emails was roiling the sport, the NFL was sponsoring ads in support of National Coming Out Day. “Football is Gay” the ads read.
The toxic masculinity at the heart of America’s most popular sport — and men’s sports culture more generally — is way deeper than a few emails or a Jay-Z turnaround.
Growing up, sports were my lifeline. As a brown kid with a funny name that most people couldn’t pronounce (my full first name is Abdulrahman), sports were a safe haven. On the football field, I felt free. And yet on the sidelines and in the locker room, I was fed a hefty dose of the worst kinds of racist taunting. After all, it’s where a particular kind of “bro” culture has been inculcated and replicated for decades. Racism, misogyny, and homophobia were lingua franca. And while coaches would call out the most egregious forms, there was rarely a concerted effort to uproot the culture that drove it. Indeed, too often, coaches were raised in the same culture. So while I remain grateful to all of my coaches for many of the lessons they taught me, I can’t help, in the spirit of coaching itself, to ask how we can improve.
Never mind his public apology and resignation, I bet if you asked Jon Gruden if what he said or did was wrong, he’d echo the same defense that men make for their toxic masculinity everywhere — “I didn’t mean to offend anyone,” or “it was just locker room talk,” or “they’re just words.” I’m sure Gruden is sorry that his actions have cost him a job; I just don’t believe he’s sorry for his actions. After all, one of the hallmarks of this culture itself is to offer no apology, feel no remorse. It blames the victims of words and actions for being so sensitive.
And that’s where Ted Lasso’s brand of benevolent masculinity comes in. Ted Lasso, the American transplant head soccer coach of the fictional Richmond FC on Apple TV+’s Emmy award-winning hit TV show is a breath of fresh air. Personally, the show hits close to home. I, too, am a midwesterner who lived in the U.K. I, too, grew up playing football but have found a love and appreciation for Premier League other-football. Ted’s character, known for his uncanny pop culture knowledge and penchant for dad jokes, focuses on the human side of coaching. In a profession known for force and aggression, he unites his team through finesse and encouragement. Ted cries. He talks through his problems. He encourages his players. He bakes biscuits (er, cookies) for his boss. He smiles … like, all the time.
Ted summarizes his coaching philosophy while at dinner with a particularly harsh critic of the misfit football-turned- futbol coach, journalist Trent Crimm (...the Independent!). “I’m gunna say this again, just so you didn’t think it was a mistake the first time I said it: for me, success is not about the wins and losses, it’s about helping these young fellas be the best version of themselves, on and off the field.”
After a heartbreaking loss that means relegation (being bumped down into a lower league) for his team, he tells the team, “let’s be sad now, let’s be sad together...and I want you to be grateful that you’re going through this sad moment with all these other folks, because I promise you there’s something worse out there than being sad. And that’s being alone and being sad.” In my entire athletic career, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a coach talk about sadness. Sadness, after all, is not an acceptable emotion. Anger? Sure. But not sadness. And if you’re going to feel it, at least do it by yourself where nobody can see you. Here the coach puts the emotional wellbeing of his team above the outcome on the field, and acknowledges and even permits sadness, reminding his players to experience it together.
Sport is a metaphor for life. For millions of young people, sports can teach life’s lessons in a safe and nurturing environment — the link between preparation and success, how to bounce back after defeat, how to work within a team, how to find every ounce of effort you can give, and so much more. But, too often these lessons are tainted by the culture of men like Jon Gruden.
As mentors through these life lessons, coaches have a responsibility to equip their athletes with a culture that empowers them through positive, inclusive, and empowering values. And this is where the Jon Grudens of the world have failed — and where Ted Lasso thrives. Ted, of course, is a fictional character dreamt up in the collective mindhive of a writer’s room. And yet he offers an example of what tomorrow’s coach ought to be.