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The Wildly Offensive Joke That’s Gone Unnoticed in ‘Air Bud’ for 25 Years

How did a stunning bit of Islamophobia end up in a Disney movie for kids about a dog that plays basketball — and then somehow make its way into the sequel, too?

2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack. See all of the stories here.

Even before it was released in 1997, studio executives agreed that Air Bud was a perfect movie. After the film’s first test screening at Disney, it “came back with the highest score of any Disney movie ever at that time,” Robert Vince, the CEO of Air Bud Entertainment and producer of the flourishing Air Bud media empire, told The Athletic in April 2020. “I remember Joe Roth [Studio Chairman of Walt Disney Studios at the time] saying to me, ‘Don’t change anything in the movie. I don’t know why it works. But don’t change a frame.’”

Roth’s intuition was right. For two and half decades, Air Bud told a consummate coming-of-age tale, beloved by a generation. The original film became the foundation for one of Hollywood’s most successful direct-to-video franchises, and by all appearances, it was poised to remain unbesmirched for countless decades more — if it weren’t for two bros in Connecticut who paused their TV on a curious frame.

It was a frigid, blustery Christmas Eve in 2017 when Lee Metzger and Josh Cranmer decided to relive their glory days as college roommates by dialing up Air Bud, one of their favorite childhood movies. Watching terrible movies and then “dissecting them for hours on end,” was a tradition for the former college roommates, but they had no idea what they were about to discover. “We had a habit of pausing movies whenever we saw a newspaper or magazine clipping because we loved reading them and looking for Easter eggs,” Cranmer, now 29, says. “So I paused the movie and ran up to the screen, but before I could read it out loud to Lee, my jaw dropped to the floor.” 

The newspaper clipping on the screen showed an obituary for the father of the movie’s main character, Josh Framm.

Transcribed from the image, the text reads: 

NEW MEXICO — Another tragedy struck today, when test pilot Captain Andrew Framm crashed his experimental XW-NG jet. Captain Framm is best known for being the only man to break the sound barrier with a banana and a long sports sock. Framm was the youngest of eighteen in the now famous Flying Framm Family. His father, Luther Framm, was the daring pilot who during the Second World War flew in ham and bibles to Muslim prisoners in Berlin. Luther then went on to start the first ever daredevil acrobatic team with stunts like Propeller Walking, Ignite the Framm and Wing Squash.

Training at an early age with his Uncle Scooter, Andrew soon appeared in countless television shows [sic] Arne the Ape Boy until his father’s tragic death in a boating accident in 1963. With Luther’s death overshadowed by the Kennedy assisinatio[sic], Andy felt he should follow his father’s footsteps by beginning to fly. First of all calling himself Captain Dick, then Airmen Hazel, Framm joined the Special Test or Die Aircorp where he soon became the first cross-dressing squadron leader in the world. Father of two, Framm will be sorrowfully missed.

Air Bud is arguably one of the best basketball dog movies of all time, I loved it as a child,” Metzger, 31, tells me. “I didn’t know what to expect, but I could hear it in Josh’s voice, as he started reading it aloud, his volume and tone escalated line-by-line, like he was uncovering a hidden message, going, ‘Banana and a long sports sock? Flew in ham and bibles to Muslim prisoners in Berlin? What!?’” 

“It was Earth-shattering,” Cranmer recalls. “It was the equivalent of finding an Easter egg in the Declaration of Independence, because to a lot of kids who grew up in the 1990s what is Air Bud if not their Declaration of Independence?”

The duo “did a pretty extensive look to see if anyone else had ever posted about this online,” but found nothing, Metzger says. “So we started posting around to Reddit and reaching out to whoever we could to get answers, but again — nothing.” 

It’s hard to believe that such an outright Islamophobic detail would make it through all the editing and quality checks necessary for a kid’s movie of this stature, especially at a time when intense scrutiny of Disney’s animated movies had consumers falsely believing the company had snuck subliminal sexual messages into specific scenes. But to this day, in an era when consumers digitally stream media rather than own permanent, hard copies, the film remains unedited. Anyone streaming Air Bud right now can pause the movie just eight minutes in and see the questionable obituary clear as day.

So how did this happen, and who wrote the obit? 

According to Ric Walkington, who worked as Air Bud’s prop master, and Troy Hansen, Air Bud’s set dresser, anything appearing in print that has implications for the plot is typically handled by the film’s writers, while props that are out of focus, not featured or have nothing to do with the plot are “generated by the art department and start out as ‘Lorem Ipsum,’” Walkington tells me, adding that, “unless it’s scripted to be seen on camera and referenced, I don’t have any input.”

“I vaguely remember being impressed that the prop department put together what, at quick glance, at least looked like a legitimate obituary to match the headline we wrote into the script, ‘Crash Claims Life of Test Pilot,’” says Aaron Mendelsohn, co-creator and co-writer of Air Bud

But Mendelsohn had little knowledge of — or control over — anything beyond what was indicated in the script. “I would imagine that since the director Charlie Martin Smith knew he was going to shoot a close-up of what Josh was looking at in the scene, he wanted to make sure the article appeared legit,” he tells me. “I have no idea if it was the prop master or one of his crew members who actually wrote the obituary, thank God the camera didn’t pull in too close or hold the shot for too long.”

Neither Walkington nor Hansen, however, recall knowing what was in the obit prior to me contacting them. “I remember hating the photo — I think the uniform was incorrect or something — but I have to admit that I don’t remember the text at all,” Walkington says. He adds that “now, thanks internet and invasive technology,” he’ll have to go back and “rewatch every film I ever did as a props guy and find what else ended up being seen when it probably shouldn’t have.” 

The article’s byline reads “Raul Inglis,” a name that also appears on IMDb as the film’s assistant to the director. But both Hansen and Walkington are skeptical that Inglis authored the problematic text. “Raul Inglis is a pretty well-known writer and director at this point,” Hansen says. “He may have written the article, but sometimes crew names will also be used for things like signs, name tags, paperwork, etc.” 

“Raul was Charlie’s assistant and a great guy, but whether he ‘wrote’ any of that or the art department credited him with it, I don’t know,” Walkington says, positing that Inglis’ name being bolded could indicate that the art department “might have thought that his name would be the only text noted on camera.”

When I reach out to Inglis over email for comment, he says, “I might have written that. It is my sense of humor. But I can’t be sure. Having my name on it might be the giveaway. It’s funny that I have no clear recollection of it. The other prop newspaper stuff I know I wrote subversive things on it trying to see what I could get away with but this one…”

His bemused ownership of the obit falters, however, when I press him on the Islamophobic sections of the text. “As I said, I can’t really say 100 percent that I wrote it. It might have been a group effort with the props department and/or some of my friends, or someone else wrote it and put my name on it as part of the joke,” he maintains. “There was another writer I worked with during that time at the company that had a subversive sense of humor. It could have been him and that’s why I can’t remember writing it.

“However,” Inglis continues, “that joke about the ham and bibles would have been an ironic blast at how the Western powers think they always know what’s right for the rest of the world and are completely insensitive to other cultures.”

Whoever wrote it, the obit definitely had staying power, as it shows up again — unchanged — in the 1998 Air Bud sequel, Air Bud: Golden Receiver. “In the second movie, Josh is trying to reconcile his love for his biological dad while his mom starts dating,” Metzger explains. “At about the 16-minute mark, he is sifting through some shit in the garage and the camera pans to the obituary for about five seconds, which says the exact same stuff, word for word.” (Neither Disney nor Robert Vince responded to my requests for comment about why the obit hasn’t been swapped out for something less bigoted.)

Screenshot of obituary in Air Bud: Golden Receiver 

In an attempt to make sense of all of this, Metzger and Cranmer dedicated several months to dissecting every single piece of media in the Air Bud franchise for a podcast they titled Air Buds: A Frammily Show. “This series of dog sports films are just a terrible cash grab, but from the obituary of Andrew Framm’s death, you get a window into a universe — an ‘extended Buddyverse,’ if you will,” Metzger says. “If you take the obituary as being matters of fact in the world Air Bud takes place, a fascist dystopia begins to form in the background.” 

Another in-movie newspaper article from Air Bud that, per Metzger, “takes an absolute bonkers turn from Air Bud winning to essentially describing a situation where Washington state police officers were held captive and tortured by the Viet Cong.” 

“What is described in that article is inarguably awful behavior — I mean, that’s essentially a hate crime, a war crime even,” Cranmer adds. “But not in the Buddyverse — in the Buddyverse, that type of behavior gets highlighted as a heroic act. So then you start to wonder, if they’re in 1997 America and celebrating that, maybe World War II went a little differently in this universe. Maybe Nazi Germany won because in this universe, Hitler’s famous German Shepherd was an Air Bud.” 

That, of course, is ridiculous. But so is Air Bud. If there is one truth to the Buddyverse, it’s that nothing ever really makes sense. In that regard, whether it’s a golden retriever inexplicably tagging in for the final basketball game of the season, or a bigoted obituary sneaking into a children’s movie, Air Bud has been nothing but consistent — for 25 years, and counting.