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The Mighty Ducks: An Ethical Observation

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It had been a long time coming; but I have finally found and retyped my paper on the ethic perspectives into the Disney movie The Mighty Ducks (1992) that I did for my Sports Ethics class. 

I hope you all enjoy it and don't trash me too much at the end.

Throughout the sports world there are many decisions that are made that wail call into account a person's ethics.  An individual's moral values are challenged during many different circumstances.  These decisions can be made almost spontaneously in ones subconscious or be thought out over time depending on the situation.  Some of these situations can be found in the 1992 Disney movie "The Mighty Ducks" and how players, coaches, staff, and even sponsors handle situations they found themselves in.

Coach Gordon Bombay’s moral development is prevalent throughout the film from when he first meets the team to the final game. At the first meeting of the District Five team he is disgusted by the lack of skill, organization, and in his view – the correct attitude.  Coach Bombay tell the team, "If we’re going to cheat we have to make the fall look real." This shows a low moral value for the integrity of the sport of ice hockey from the coach.  During the first game he tells one of the players (Charlie Conway) to fake taking a high-stick from the opposing team to draw a penalty.  This attitude toward the game can be seen as low moral values; but it is not a rare occurrence in the game of ice hockey.  The player (Conway) refused to fake the penalty, while he was tied up along the boards with two of the players fighting for possession of the puck, when he easily could have pulled it off and drew the penalty to give his team the man advantage. 

Following the first game with District Five, Coach Bombay tells the young team that they "stink".   Later in the movie as Bombay stumbles upon a student (from the same school as the rest of the team) that has a powerful shot and wants him to join the team; however, there is one problem – Fulton Reed cannot skate.  Having seen the potential that Reed has for taking slap shots, Coach Bombay takes the initiative of teaching him enough for the basics of skating so that he can contribute a few shifts in each game when his intimidation factor is needed.

Using Hodgkinson’s Hierarchical Orientation of Values one can look at Coach Bombay’s development though out the movie.  At the start of the movie Bombay is at the lowest level of Hodgkinson’s hierarchy.  He is selfish, egotistical and conforms to the thought process of "I behave the way I do because I like it". Examples of this behavior from Bombay is when in court he makes the comment that "losing fair is still losing," and his selfish behavior of drinking and driving. That act alone is not only self-centered and reckless, it puts everyone else in unforeseen danger.

The second level of the values development is a utilitarian approach to behavior.  At this stage one thinks, "I behave the way I do because everyone else does it." After being forced into coaching the Division Five team, Bombay mirrors the style of his coach (Coach Reilly) from when he had played ice hockey as a youth.  To him this is the normal behavior of a coach and this is acceptable for his new role.

Some of the players over hear Coach Bombay talking with Coach Reilly of the Hawks about their subpar abilities.The majority of the team refuses to come out for the pre-game skate and forces the team to forfeit the game.  At this moment, when his team has turned their back on him because of his behavior, Coach Bombay started to make the developmental change to the third level of Hodgkinson’s Hierarchical Orientation of Values.  In this level the person's thought process (though it may be sub-conscious) follows the rule "I behave the way I do because it is efficient and effective."

Following the altercation with the players Coach Bombay returns to speak with his childhood mentor Hans about his past, his once love for the sport, and of his father.  It is following this talk that Hans gives Bombay a pair of ice skates and he goes to the pond to skate and think. During this self-reflection is when Bombay made the conscious decision to change his behavior towards the game and the players to a way that is more effective in coaching them as a unit.

Hodgkinson’s final stage is of an existential nature.  In this stage a person begins to think "I behave the way I do because I have faith in my beliefs."  The best examples of Coach Bombay reaching this plateau are during the final game. He tells the team to make sure they have fun during the game, and he puts in Reed (the player who is just learning to skate) in for the final shift of the game though he and the team know he is not a good skater (but has a hard shot).  His actions were no longer in the interest of what was best for him, but chosen based on believing in what is best for the development of his young team.

Throughout the movie, there are many examples of decisions that are made from either a moral or strategic stand point. The first of these is in the start of the movie, when the opening credits are rolling. The Hawks' Coach Reilly tells a young Gordon Bombay "If you don’t make this shot you’re not only letting me down you’re letting the team down." This statement by the coach to a player is a strategic decision, and debatable in its suitability, especially for such a young player. 

The coach is trying to motivate the player, but his words only placed more pressure on the child, and in turn have a profound impact on the ethical development of all the children on the team that he is responsible for.  Later in the movie, Coach Reilly is still coaching the Hawks, while Bombay is now coaching District Five/The Mighty Ducks. Reilley tells his players to take out the star shooter for the Mighty Ducks.  Coach Reilly’s "win at all cost" attitude is being imprinted onto the young players as an acceptable thought process and not just in a sense of bracketed morality.

Now back to the beginning of the movie.  When Gordon Bombay was arrested and charged with driving under the influence, his boss arranged to have him be sentenced to complete community service knowing that he was a hockey player as a youth.  Mr. Ducksworth had Bombay coach a struggling youth hockey team to try and instill a sense of compassion along with learning how to work as a group and not just for himself. 

This was a combination of both moral and strategic reasoning on Mr. Ducksworth’s behalf.  It was moral in the ways he wanted Bombay to grow as a person – to become everything he could be. It was strategic in the fact that Bombay was an employee of his and it would be a benefit to everyone that worked within the law firm for Bombay to develop some compassion. 

After working with the team and having the transformation that Mr. Ducksworth intended starting to take hold, Bombay came to his boss and proposed that he sponsor the team.  The players from District Five came from lower income families that did not have the money for new equipment; so Bombay started his pitch with moral reason as to why Mr. Ducksworth should sponsor the team: development of the kids, building a team atmosphere, etc: but when this failed he switched to a strategic argument with his boss and highlighted how it would show the community how the law firm cared and gave back to the community.  Mr. Ducksworth agreed to Coach Bombay’s request for sponsorship under one condition – the team be renamed after him, thus the Mighty Ducks came to be.

Coach Bombay made a strategic move when he found out that the Hawks star player (Adam Banks) was in fact living within the zoning ordinance for the Mighty Ducks team.  He took this information to the leagues headquarters and had the player traded.  Bands had always played for the Hawks, whom had the distinct honor of being the best team in the league for decades, and was taken from a system he knew and placed on a team that had less developed skill. 

Banks’ father happened to be close friends with Mr. Ducksworth and went to him to force Bombay to drop the petition for his son’s trade so that Adam could continue to play with what was viewed as the better team.  Mr. Ducksworth threatened Bombay with losing his job at the law firm over ‘some kids’ and ‘some game’ if he did not comply with their demands.  Bombay ended up losing his job over gaining his team the fair advantage of acquiring the player that was supposed to rightfully be on the team in the first place.  Bombay had undergone the transformation that Mr. Ducksworth had wanted.  He went from looking out for what was best for him and put the needs of the team before his own. However, Mr. Ducksworth ended up losing him as an employee due to his newly discovered moral code.

At the beginning of the movie Gordon Bombay was a hotshot lawyer that was focused on one thing – winning.  His desire for winning at all cost in the courtroom can be linked to his youth with a hockey coach that stressed the importance of winning at all cost.  Through his coaching of the Mighty Ducks, Bombay's own moral development was remolded to look beyond him to see the greater good.  Moral Development is a lifelong process and something that will be used by every individual ‘on the fly’ on and off the ice.


Lecture notes over Hodgkinsons’ Hierarchical Orientation of Values

Ethics of Sport and Athletics: Theory, Issues, and Application

Robert C. Schneider

Wolters Kluwer | Lippincott Williams and Wilkins

Philadelphia 2009


Walt Disney Pictures: The Mighty Ducks (1992)

Directed by Stephen Herek

Staring Emilio Estevez

Cameo Appearances from National Hockey League players Mike Modano and Basil McRae


***This was a paper that I had written for my Sports Ethics class for Professor Adam Brick at George Mason University in November of 2009.