Sexism Plagues Hockey
Most American sports fans are aware of our country’s dominance in women’s sports like basketball and gymnastics. But there is another sport in which American women have collected numerous Olympic medals and won seven of the last nine world championships — ice hockey.
Despite being wildly successful on the world stage, American women’s ice hockey has been repeatedly degraded at home by its own governing body. USA Hockey recently took a long-awaited positive step toward improving the conditions for women’s play, but the organization’s shameful past must not be forgotten. USA Hockey must be held accountable for its disrespect and underdevelopment of the women’s game.
On Tuesday, the begrudging leaders of USA Hockey and the members of the women’s national team finally struck a deal that will cover the next four years. The breakthrough came on the eve of the International Ice Hockey Federation Women’s World Championships, which begin today in Plymouth, MI. The women’s team had threatened to boycott the world championships if USA Hockey was not willing to meet some of its demands.
It’s hard to know which, if any, of the players’ demands were met, as the financial terms of the deal were not disclosed. John Smallwood of the Daily News reported that the women had demanded $68,000 for their annual salaries, as well as child care and maternity leave. However, no players confirmed that figure, and team captain Meghan Duggan said in a statement that the women simply sought a “living wage.” The women’s team also sought travel accommodations equal to those enjoyed by the men’s players, who travel business class and are compensated to bring one guest each, while the women travel coach and are not compensated for any guests. Finally, the women wanted USA Hockey to provide them with more games — opportunities to practice for international competition and build their fanbase.
With the team cleared to play in the 11th hour, the men in charge of USA Hockey took a smug victory lap.
“Today reflects everyone coming together and compromising in order to reach a resolution for the betterment of the sport,” USA Hockey President Jim Smith said in a statement. “We’ll now move forward together knowing we’ll look back on this day as one of the most positive in the history of USA Hockey.”
For USA Hockey to pretend that it has always walked hand in hand with its women’s players is a joke. When the team’s talk of a boycott neared dangerously close to the start of the tournament, USA Hockey reportedly began searching for replacements and threatened to field a team of alternates.
That’s just one infraction in a long line of instances in which USA Hockey has outright neglected its women’s players. In a 2014 press conference just before the Sochi Olympics, the organization debuted the sweaters that both the men’s and women’s teams would wear at the games. They featured patches commemorating the years 1960 and 1980, when the Americans won the gold medal. Conspicuously absent was the year 1998, when the women won the gold medal in the first ever Olympic women’s hockey tournament.
Not only has USA Hockey neglected the successes of the Olympic women, it has also failed to develop the next generation of stars. The organization spends $3.5 million a year supporting the National Team Development Program for boys. No such program exists for girls, and the impact shows. While girls’ participation in lacrosse and soccer has risen in the past several decades, the number of girls playing hockey fell slightly in the 1980s and then flatlined. If USA Hockey expects American women to continue to dominate, it must support players not only at the top but also at the grassroots level. Aside from the deal struck Tuesday, the organization has failed to do both.
But why should USA Hockey pay women’s players, when it does not pay men? Men’s players have their salaries taken care of by the NHL, where the minimum salary for the 2016–17 season is $575,000. In the National Women’s Hockey League, the salary cap for an entire team is $270,000 and most players make about $14,000 to $17,000 per season.
In other sports like skating and even biathlon, in which professional competition does not provide a living wage, the governing body steps in and provides stipends or facilitates endorsement deals. U.S. Figure Skating pays its top athletes $50,000 a year, despite posting revenue of $17.9 million in 2014, much lower than the $41.9 million USA Hockey made in that same year.
USA Hockey clearly has never done as much as it could to support its women athletes. Still, the defending champions will take their rightful place on the ice this weekend and give their governing body no choice but to respect them.