Storming of the Ice Palace
What the culture of 90's sports franchises for children can tell us about class disparity and the failings of our economic model; a nostalgia-themed review of a new Disney+ TV series.
“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.” wrote Ursula K. Le Guin, and we see the truth of this statement bear out on every level of our culture; if you do something for passion, it’s expected to be something, if you can do it for profit, you would do for profit. The American sports culture is no exception to this.
In Moneyball, of the Oakland Athletics, Michael Lewis says, “The pleasure of rooting for Goliath is that you can expect to win. The pleasure of rooting for David is that, while you don’t know what to expect, you stand at least a chance of being inspired.” and that’s really what’s under any culturally relevant sports narrative. For the Oakland A’s, it was a question of how to game an unfair system against itself to remain competitive; they could be accused of acting outside the spirit of the sport, but what’s more sportsmanlike, resolving an imbalance that ensures only two teams out of an entire league can afford the very best uncritical of their individual contributions to a team’s overall performance, or insisting the iconosphere for well-paid superstars is necessary for a sport to persist even if it means one corporation can monopolize said pool of superstars and crush opposition by brute force? The former, it turns out, is an effective means of resolving the imbalance created by the latter. “An imperfect understanding of where runs come from” is what Jonah Hill’s composite character in the film version says of this strategy— you make up shortcomings by a lack of superstar “talent” in the aggregate, not by simply hiring more superstars, so the ineffeciency won’t matter (which, frankly, again, sounds a lot less in the spirit of the sport than leveling an artificially imbalanced playing field).
The core issue is that corporations in these sports has turned the franchises into brand entities first and foremost; a team with a premier brand should, logically, have the most premier players and thus a win against them indicates something nefarious or violating of the commoditized spectacle, not a merit-based system where the best players can be grouped to win in a contest that is fundamentally fair, absent the influence of money that has nothign to do with the merit of anyone other than general managers supported by wealthier owners.
I’ve written about this franchise before, but the Mighty Ducks series is, and its latest TV installment especially, about exactly this. I wrote, previously, about what corporations like Disney turned these franchises into, despite the core message remaining the same, and I’ll focus largely on this: The problem is consumerism, and capitalist intentionality on the purity of any art or expressive form that goes into it.
The original film opens with attorney, Gordon Bombay, in court defending (successfully) corrupt people, something his employer, Mr. Duckworth, disapproves of despite Gordon being undefeated in the courtroom. We learn, after he is court-ordered to coach an undersupplied youth hockey team in a low-income community, that his attitude is about his own experience with the wealthy district’s team in the same league when he was young; he was blamed for their one championship loss in the years before or since, and his attachment to winning had everything to do with the branding of the Hawks as “winners” while the Ducks, who ultimately face the Hawks in the championship under his leadership, are “losers” (the implication is that, regardless of talent, they were born to lose because, on some level, they didn’t work hard enough). Bombay, at one point, arranges the transfer of one of the Hawks’ best players, Adam Banks, by knowing the rules of drawing district lines, realizing Banks, while definitely one of the Hawks culturally, cartographically is a Duck— he will play with the poor kids, if he values fairness as his father purports him to, or not at all; a gaming of the system against itself.
In the end, the Ducks are victorious, and because of this, they receive enough media attention to be asked to join the national youth hockey team to represent their country (which I discuss the geopolitics of this metaphor in the other piece). The subplot that I find engaging in this first film, however, is that Bombay is, before spirit is broken following the death of his father and then carrying the blame for the loss of the game, a true talent. He takes this attitude into the law, where he defends the worst; something that, on the surface, seems like a high-skill based ability, but is actually just an expression that, if you have enough money, you truly can be above the law— on his own, Bombay was unable to face the legal consequences of his action. The end of the film is him leaving to train for a minor league hockey team. The end of the third film sees Bombay, having shepherded his team into a new phase of their life and into the next stage of inequality (being allowed to compete at the high school level against the wealthier, but evidently, less talented but more materially equipped teams), and he returns to the service body world of youth hockey.
Where the new series, The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers, picks up is that the Ducks are now the premier franchise youth hockey team in the state, replete with branding and their own blowhard, image-obsessed coach, one that values purely individual power and discipline over love of the game and a willingness to train. He cuts our protagonist, Evan, whose mom is a paralegal who works in an office that seemingly exists to evict tenants from their leased homes. She encourages Evan to start a new team, not to worry about being the best, but to play their best, and with the people who the traditional youth sports world has left behind (plus, of course, a couple key franchise players to influence their playing level)— he does this by identifying need, and then seeing the skills he wants in his friends and neighbors off the ice; what skills are translatable, etc. but how many are transferrable to control on the ice as well? We come to find out this is part of their struggle for recognition.
For Bombay’s part, inexplicably, he now hates hockey (despite owning a local decrepit rink called the Ice Palace) and has disdain for the Ducks as a corporate entity. Evan recognizes Gordon as “the Minnesota Miracle Man”, the coach of “the old Ducks”— this implies that “a lifetime ago” as Bombay puts it, there was a disconnect between his rediscovered love of the game, and now a disdain for what the league becomes, a bourgeois haven for stage parents to “fight [their] bullies for [them]” and fight for status and defend the class prerogative that they belong there, when the inherent reality, as Bombay suggests, is that they’re kids, and they should have fun so it does not matter if the team he’s chosen isn’t the best. From the other side, he argues to Evan that his mom, fundamentally, is doing this for him; that she’s trying to compete to keep his spot when it comes so effortlessly for the wealthier parents speaks to their class prerogative, which is more (comparatively) about survival than it is about perpetuating (and pressure to perpetuate) status and consolidated, hoarded community resources like those of a youth sports league, where it shouldn’t even be in question that enforced inequality is not a part of life.
Like in Moneyball, where players’ disqualifying “defects” for other teams become something to hack into an advantage in the aggregate, Evan picks his team from people who may not have played hockey before, even, but have something to work through that can translate into an effective team. For the Oakland A’s, it was age, or a strange throwing position, body composition, injury that would disqualify for one position but make ideal for another; in this series, it seems to be about finding people with an axe to grind with society, and rather than remaining in the margins, that focus that sense of injustice is sublimated into collective effort towards securing that place, as the Ducks had a generation before.
The question is, after this first episode, how do they prevent this from happening again? Class struggle is ongoing, and that’s the implication of Gordon’s commentary; the franchise is not the team, it can’t forget where it came from because at some point, the brand took on a life of its own— we see this all the time, the brand is the signifier, rather than what the labor who powers the brand puts out, or in this case, who is anoited to represent it, rather than build it. The son of a philosopher king, Plato said, becomes a tyrant; this is the corrupting influence of consumerist thought on that which used to represent a class struggle, but comes to represent the rulers. This is something they also tackle in the second film, where Gordon struggles with whether or not to take on the offer of a corporation to sponsor them for international play, Hendrix Hockey Apparel; he is only deprogrammed once he’s exposed to vast riches (for a youth hockey coach) by his team, who produces the labor for little of the reward (content, nominally, to play for their pride, which only can be true if they are unexploited, which Gordon comes to recognize, and levels himself out). It’s telling of that incompatibility with Gordon’s values that, in the present day series, Hendrix still sponsors the Ducks and their massive arena, and is effectively the empire against which this drama is beginning to unfold, wherein the children marginalized in various ways (in the original film, it was very specifically not a class reductionist message, but one that emphasized where this disparty was coming from at the core) will storm the Hendrix sports complex, and, having demanded it, compete on equal footing.
All in all, I think this series will come to represent what was once true of even corporatized media entities, like the film franchise as a whole, in the 90’s— this idea inherently suggestive of the role of class struggle and that willfully believing the lies of empire to gain its favor may work, but is not a just response to inequity.
Some things I’m reading, watching, or listening to that I am now recommending: