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Flyers Bring Back Sexism on Ice

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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The NHL season opens this week, and fans of the Philadelphia Flyers can rejoice at the return of their beloved "ice girls," the underpaid, underdressed, underfed women who shovel ice and entertain the crowd between periods.

Back in June, an exposé by Mother Jones's Julia Lurie revealed the horrid conditions these women face, from working in frigid arenas with inadequate clothing to strict dictates on makeup, hair and food, while being paid little more than minimum wage.

Presumably fearing the kind of legal backlash the New York Rangers faced years ago with their now-defunct ice-girl squad, and aware of National Football League teams being sued by their cheerleading squads, the Flyers decided last month to do away with the degrading spectacle, replacing scantily clad "girls" with more appropriately dressed "ice guys."

Needless to say, the move did not go over well with Flyers fans attending the team's first preseason game. The crowd gave the men the kind of hearty, Philadelphia welcome usually reserved for Santa Claus and Sidney Crosby. And it worked! The Flyers are bringing back the ice girls, and scheduled tryouts over the weekend for the privilege of being devalued and gawked at for $50 a game (amounting to seven hours of total work).

Here's where people will say, "But they chose to be ice girls!" and accuse me of being anti-free-choice or anti-woman or anti-ice. Even the women who relayed their horror stories to Mother Jones told Lurie that despite their complaints, they still enjoyed being the center of attention of thousands of fans.

The extent to which women can and should use their sexual capital for employment has been hotly debated among feminists for years, but I think everyone agrees that all workers who do -- from ice girls to supermodels to adult film stars -- should expect a certain level of workplace protection. Even ice girls have a right to regular meals and avoiding frostbite and being, as one put it, "at the bottom of the totem pole." The Flyers haven't said if this new squad of women will receive more humane treatment than their predecessors, but the very idea of "ice girls" speaks to a longtime trend in sports that, put simply, needs to stop.

The gratuitous use of beautiful women to further sell sports to male audiences extends beyond Philadelphia and "Octagon girls" and cheerleaders. There's the practice of networks flashing "honey shots" of cute co-eds in the stands; websites publishing slideshows and "hot lady of the day" photos in otherwise innocuous sports coverage; "podium girls" in what seems perilously close to offering women themselves as trophies to winning male cyclists; and, of course, the marginalization of female sports journalists to the sidelines, from which they're judged by a different set of standards than their male counterparts.

Women in media aren't the only sports professionals who lose from the continued objectification of women. In 2011, The Nation's Mary Jo Kane noted that while sex might sell men's sports, it does so to the detriment of women's sports. Fans who are inundated with images of women as accessories don't take them seriously as athletes -- or journalists, or coaches, or executives, for that matter.

The cheap use of attractive women also further isolates the growing numbers of female fans, many of whom struggle to reconcile their ideals with their fandom -- especially at a time when women's issues are at the forefront in sports. Some men have also expressed feeling conflicted about continuing to watch football amid the NFL's domestic violence scandal. But the ubiquity of sexy women as a marketing strategy further emphasizes that sports executives simply don't value their female fans as much as their male fans. It further defines sports as an exclusively heterosexual, male realm, meant for the enjoyment of heterosexual men. If we're going to express outrage that Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson would suggest playing less hip-hop and hiring fewer black cheerleaders in order to attract more white fans, we should be equally outraged that across the sports world, pretty ladies are used as a selling point to male fans whose dollars apparently matter more than their female counterparts.

Reducing women to their bodies against the backdrop of a male-dominated industry fits right into a culture in which players (and owners) accused of sexual assault are often unpunished and celebrated -- a culture we should be working to change. The problem is, we're so desensitized, so used to our sports coming with a side of scantily-clad lady, that we brush off criticism of Philly's ice girls and the like as no big deal. We write it off as intrinsic male behavior, and deny that it's a problem. If sports stopped using women to sell the product, we'd probably hardly notice during games themselves, the reaction of Flyers fans notwithstanding. But in the long run, perhaps we'd be less inclined to accept it as standard practice within other industries, such as music and advertising. And at the very least, it would make sports a much more inclusive place for women to work and watch without being the lowest group on the totem pole.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net