Early one Friday morning last January, I was surrounded by roughly 20,000 screaming fans, an army of half-naked women, and an effigy of Ruben Amaro. High above on the scoreboard video screen, a clip played on repeat. The image: a guy projectile vomiting. On the same floor where Allen Iverson once thrilled, where the Flyers nearly won their third Stanley Cup just five years ago, a bunch of dudes (and one very intimidating woman) were shoving chicken wings down their pie-holes as fast as they could. The crowd cheered, mostly in hopeful anticipation of someone puking.
This is Wing Bowl — sports-talk radio station WIP’s annual celebration of the most primal male instincts (gluttony, protracted leering, getting shitfaced on Miller Lite at six in the morning). “Bacchanal” doesn’t adequately describe the scene you’ll witness on the 30th of this month. I have nothing against watching fat guys eat until they’re physically unable to pack any more food down their gullets, like some sort of human foie gras performance art. Nor do I oppose drinking irresponsibly on occasion, as long as no motor vehicles, knife fights or karaoke versions of Meat Loaf songs are involved.
But competitive eating isn’t the big draw for Wing Bowl these days. No one’s clicking through online slide shows for pictures of men on the verge of gastric volvulus. The main attraction is those scantily clad ladies — the “Wingettes,” who escort the eaters into the arena, cheer them on as they gorge, and try to look sexy while standing clear of the vomit blast radius.
The problem with Wing Bowl is the gross misogyny that’s overtaken the event — an event promoted by the same folks at WIP who were so (rightly) outraged at the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell over their handling of ex-Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice’s domestic violence case. There is a connection between what Rice did in that casino elevator and what happens at Wing Bowl. And if the culture doesn’t change, this year’s Wing Bowl should be the last.
PERHAPS ONLY IN Philadelphia could a phrase like “a brief history of the Wing Bowl” be written in earnest and be an essential point of discussion. Back in 1993, Inquirer sportswriters-turned-radio-hosts Al Morganti and Angelo Cataldi had an idea to occupy that dead week between the end of the NFL playoffs — at which point the Eagles’ season was, and still is, usually long over — and the Super Bowl. As a nod to the Buffalo Bills, who lost the championship game four times, they created a wing-eating contest. The first Wing Bowl was held in the lobby of a Center City hotel. The winner scored a hibachi. In the years that followed, plenty of self-respecting local luminaries stopped by and lent the event an air of dignity: former Sixers president Pat Croce, Senator Arlen Specter, future governor of Pennsylvania Ed Rendell, and, more recently, Birds head coach Chip Kelly.
I’m not sure when Wing Bowl made the transition from harmless, messy fun to the carnival of drunks and exhibitionists it’s become. When I attended roughly 10 years ago, you didn’t need to buy a ticket for admission. (Today, tickets are 10 bucks, and the event sells out — something the Sixers won’t do once this season.) It was booze-soaked and decadent, but on a far smaller scale. This year, the grand prize is $10,000 and an $18,000 Harley. Last January, Eagles president Don Smolenski arrived on a golf cart transformed into a gigantic football helmet. Phillies broadcaster Matt Stairs chugged two beers simultaneously and inflamed the already raucous crowd. It looked like the same event I’d seen years ago, on steroids.
Once you’re inside the arena now, there’s a sense that anything goes, particularly when it comes to the treatment of women. You don’t just see videos of wing-eaters on the big screen — there’s a camera scanning the crowd, looking for one of the following: an attractive woman, whose image will send the audience into a “Show your tits” chant; two attractive women, which will inspire a cheer in hopes they’ll flash their breasts or start making out; or an obviously unattractive woman, who will get booed, especially if she pulls her shirt up. It’s like a Mötley Crüe concert circa 1987.
But mass classlessness isn’t where it ends. I’ve seen men grab two women by their heads and try to make them kiss, or claw at women’s shirts when the camera pans past, hoping to cop a feel or expose a breast. Guys pound on the hockey glass as the Wingettes pass by — sometimes they’re just making faces or acting like idiots; other times, they’re flipping the bird and spitting out words like “slut” and “whore.”
Also in attendance at last year’s Wing Bowl was Ronnie Polaneczky, the columnist for the Daily News and a friend of mine. Ronnie — a wife and the mother of a college-age daughter — roamed the crowd for a firsthand look at the behavior on display. By the end of the morning, she’d gotten smacked on the ass to the tune of “Lookin’ good, babe!,” witnessed what may have been a public sex act, and watched a pair of young ladies get crowd-shamed into rubbing their bare chests against each other, then get groped by the men nearby.
What’s troubling, she says, is that a misogynistic mind-set has taken over what used to be a fun, and perfectly Philly, event. “It went from being something hilarious born of impotent despair,” she says, “to something calculated — and now infused with the gestalt of the strip clubs, where everyone agrees that potentially, all women are for sale and all men are johns. Just being female implies consent inside a strip club. Now, just being female at Wing Bowl also implies consent.”
This is where Ray Rice comes in. In the midst of the controversy over his assault on his fiancée — and an even louder roar over Roger Goodell’s fumbling of the investigation and Rice’s suspension — no one was yelling more loudly for Goodell’s resignation than Cataldi. Day after day, he ripped Rice and Goodell on the air. He wrote a Metro column describing Rice’s behavior as “horrific” and “outrageous.” He challenged feminists to take the NFL to task. Yet months earlier, when Polaneczky appeared on Cataldi’s show to condemn the abusive behavior she saw at Wing Bowl, the host asked her, incredulously, “What did you expect?” (He also called her “a bitch who needs an enema.”)
Perhaps it’s unfair to draw a straight line between chanting “Show your tits” and punching a woman in the face and dragging her unconscious body out of an elevator. But does anyone imagine that the guy who felt free to butt-slap Ronnie — a stranger, in public — would, after Wing Bowl, be less inclined to smack his girlfriend or wife around?
Cataldi isn’t as dumb as he sometimes plays on the air. He’s created this environment where women are objects not just of lust, but of outright disrespect. His stance on Rice and domestic violence is a noble one, but unless the mood changes at Wing Bowl, his righteous outrage rings hollow.
I’M NOT CALLING for women to stay away from the Wing Bowl. I am suggesting they be treated like, you know, human beings. Here’s what should happen: Cataldi and company can start by banning strip club promotions at the event. If women who dance naked for a living still want to sign up as Wingettes, more power to them, but they wouldn’t wear Johnny’s Rack Shack tank tops that barely cover their nipples. Stop scanning the crowd with a camera, and confiscate crude signs. Tone down the audition process, in which Cataldi invites aspiring Wingettes into the studio so he can salivate and sling double entendres. He’d never do that with the Eagles cheerleaders or Phillies ball girls — the teams wouldn’t allow it. Promote the Wingettes more like brand ambassadors and less like a parade of hookers lining up at the Bunny Ranch.
If nothing changes at this year’s Wing Bowl, community leaders — like Rendell and District Attorney Seth Williams, both regular Cataldi callers, and teams like the Birds, who participate — should apply pressure. They should stop calling in to the show, and publicly demand that WIP tighten security and do a better job of ejecting anyone who’s underage and/or intoxicated.
Without that pressure, it’s a safe bet that Wing Bowl won’t look any different next year, or the year after that. On his show a few weeks after the Rice story — and the
outrage — had faded, Cataldi mentioned a viral video documenting a woman who walked the streets of New York City for 10 hours and was catcalled more than 100 times. Online, the video prompted much discussion about misogyny and harassment. Cataldi’s point was simply that hollering Yo baby, where can I get a piece of that? never actually results in getting laid.
“Guys,” said Cataldi with a laugh, “if it doesn’t work, don’t do it.”
Co-host Morganti chimed in: “But it feels good.”
That may sound like harmless locker-room humor on the radio. But when the biggest sports league in the country — and WIP — desperately needs a lesson in how women should be treated, it’s not funny anymore.
Originally published as “End Wing Bowl?” in the January 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.