Opinion by Laura Beers
Updated: Tue, 11 Jan 2022 23:02:45 GMT
Editor's Note: Laura Beers is a professor of history at American University. She is the author of "Your Britain: Media and the Making of the Labour Party" and "Red Ellen: The Life of Ellen Wilkinson, Socialist, Feminist, Internationalist." The views expressed here are solely hers. View more opinion articles on CNN.
In the pilot episode of "Ted Lasso," Richmond Football Club's new manager endures a press conference with journalists grilling him on his understanding of soccer after a career spent coaching American football. Lasso insists that, under his leadership, Richmond are going to "go out and give you all that they've got for two halves, win or lose," only for a member of the press crew to interject with, "or tie."
"Oh right, you all do ties here," Lasso rejoins. "Sorry, that's going to take some getting used to for me, okay, because, back where I'm from, you try to end the game in a tie, well, that might as well be the first sign of the Apocalypse." That quip was lifted almost verbatim from the 2013 NBC Sports Network short film "An American Coach in London," which first introduced coach Ted to the world.
The show routinely plays on the cultural differences between Britons and Americans for laughs -- from Ted's intolerance of tea and "fizzy water," to the British predilection for obscenity (Ted is repeatedly referred to as a w**ker), to the English football fans' willingness to embrace, and even root for, a tie (or, more properly, a "draw").
There is a fundamental truth to this cultural distinction. Monday's College Football Championship game between Georgia and Alabama ended with a winner, as has every collegiate bowl game since the rules change that introduced overtime in 1996. The NFL playoffs will each produce a winner, even if it takes more than 80 minutes to do so, as with the 1971 AFC Divisional Playoff game between the Dolphins and the Chiefs.
In contrast, the fifth and final test of the Ashes, the cricket grudge match played every two years between England and Australia, may well end in a draw -- a result that would see the ceremonial title retained by Australia, with a 3-0 record. Australia last won the series in 2018 but kept the title in 2019 with a 2-2 draw. After their poor performance in the first three tests of the series, the English last weekend were ecstatic to have drawn the most recent test. (My husband, who is English, went so far as to call the draw effectively a win.)
In the "Ted Lasso" Season 1 finale, "It's the Hope that Kills You," Lasso ultimately allows himself to hope for a tie in Richmond's final game against Manchester City -- a result that would allow Richmond to hold on to the bottom spot in the Premier League, due to an upset 6-0 victory by Crystal Palace over Norwich earlier in the day.
Going into the game, he'd refused to consider the possibility of playing for a tie. "How many times I gotta tell you that? They ain't natural, all right? If God wanted games to end in a tie, she wouldn't have invented numbers." Yet, when Richmond equalizes in the final minutes, Lasso lets himself hope for a tie, only to watch his team lose the game in the final seconds. The loss is presented as almost a form of karmic justice for having done something so shameful and un-American as not playing for an all-out win.
Yet, just as Americans do occasionally drink tea, we also occasionally let our games play to a tie, and even occasionally root for such a possible outcome, as Los Angeles Chargers fans -- and Chargers players, including quarterback Justin Herbert -- found themselves doing in the last minutes of overtime in Sunday night's NFL playoff game between the Chargers and the Las Vegas Raiders.
Ties are, of course, much rarer in American sports. Whereas, over the past five years, a quarter of English test matches have ended in a draw, and, so far this season, nearly a fifth of English premier league soccer games have drawn, there hasn't been a tie in Major League Baseball since 2016 and there was only one tie in NFL football this season.
That one tie, however, had remarkable implications for the wild ride that was Sunday's end to the 2021 regular season. In a constellation of unlikely events that echoed the finale of the Lasso show's season 1, the Pittsburgh Steelers' week 10 tie with the Detroit Lions, combined with Jacksonville's upset victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday morning, meant that, if the Raiders and the Chargers tied in Sunday Night Football, both would advance to the playoffs with a record of 8-7-1. Whereas, if one team defeated the other, the Steelers, whose record was also 8-7-1, would sneak into the final wildcard spot, a prospect that had Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin dancing in the locker room.
When the Steelers lost to the Raiders in Week 10, several NFL players had not even been aware that ties were possible. Pittsburgh running back Najee Harris told ESPN: "I didn't even know you could tie in the NFL. In my mind, I was sitting on the bench saying, 'I've got another quarter to go.' But someone came to me and said, 'That's it.' I've never had a tie in my life before." His counterpart, Detroit's Godwin Igwebuike was similarly unaware that a tie was even possible.
By Sunday evening, however, the possibilities and implications of a tie were on every NFL fan's and players' radar. While sports betting bookmakers placed long odds on a tie, others thought both teams might well decide a tie was in their best interests.
The Wall Street Journal ran an article in which economists analyzed the "prisoner's dilemma," breaking down the temptations and risks of playing for a tie. And NFL pro football analyst Adam Beasley even suggested that "there would be no motivation for either team to do anything other than kneel it out 15 times each."
Yet, game theory doesn't take into account the passion of the game. As Steelers defensive tackle Cam Heyward noted on Twitter, to hope for a tie was to misunderstand the competitive mindset of the players. "You in it to win it."
Being in it to win it is, of course, not a uniquely American phenomenon, as anyone who has watched an FA Cup or the Champions League Final knows all too well. As with so much on "Ted Lasso," the distinctions between US and UK culture are a bit more subtle than that. Both countries have a taste for victory, but the English perhaps feel that they have less to prove. They can afford to break a few eggs -- or draw a few matches -- in making an omelet.
For English fans, a tie can be a respectable stepping-stone to victory, and even, at times, feel like victory itself. For Americans, in contrast, the quest for supremacy remains a comparatively new game, and thus the tie a rare beast, and one that we won't have to worry about again until after Labor Day.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the San Diego Chargers. They are the Los Angeles Chargers.