A bit of context here: I'm a smiley and tiny 5' 1" girl who seems cute and sweet the first time you meet her. But that doesn't stop me from screaming at the top of my lungs every chance I get to go to a pro hockey game. People assume that because I'm a bitty little dancer and figure skater and musician and GIRL, I wouldn't be interested in such a scrappy and rough game as hockey. But they are SO WRONG!

There's this issue with American professional sports: you can't be a girl and play. But since when can't you be a girl to watch, to be a fan who understands the game?!? This stigma is so unnecessary and just makes me love my favorite sports and teams more.

Like other professional men's sports such as football and baseball, hockey has a huge fan base, presumably because people enjoy watching men battle it out on the ice and seeing who will dominate. Women's sports, unfortunately, tend to have significantly smaller fan bases, and even though there's both men's and women's hockey, men's has significantly more support. In fact, while nearly 40% of all sport participants are women, the media only devotes about 6-8% of its sports coverage to female athletics. Perhaps this is why the NWHL, or National Women's Hockey League, is much less well-known, especially in comparison with the NHL (which doesn't need to be designated NMHL since it's assumed that men play the sport). Likewise, the distinction between the WNBA (Women's National Basketball Association) and the NBA (National Basketball Association) is made by that added "W", with no "M" needed to characterize the NBA as male. So the stigma surrounding female fans is reflected in the sports themselves and is exacerbated by lopsided media coverage.

Another issue with professional sports is the gender bias reflected in the people who help the games function smoothly and who amp up the viewers. In hockey, these people are the ice girls. Most teams have 'em: they're these girls who dress up in tiny little crop tops and skirts, curl their hair, and sweep the ice during breaks. Often alongside them are male counterparts, none of whom have to wear next to nothing or primp themselves as if going to a wedding. This unnecessary sexualization of women just reinforces the stereotype that men are the ones who watch and play hockey (or stay warm while sweeping the ice) and girls can only sit (or sweep) pretty. Much like cheerleaders in basketball or football, ice girls are intended to remain on the sidelines, not given the chance like male athletes to take center ice.

Furthermore, gender discrimination continues to be seen not only in professional sports, but in collegiate sports as well, despite the creation of laws such as Title IX, which bans sexual discrimination in schools. The Women's Sports Foundation has found there to be "systemic gender bias in the coaching workplace of women’s college sports" and reduced funding for women's sports compared to men's. It also determined that male athletes receive $179 million more in athletic scholarships than their female counterparts and that colleges only spend 24% of their athletic operating budgets on women's sports. Of course, the issue of gender discrimination is not unique to sports. It plagues us in all aspects of life and can especially be seen in the workplace despite laws such as Title VII, which fights for gender equality.

What I'd love to see, not only in hockey, but in all professional sports is both girls and guys in the big leagues, mixed gender teams that generate millions of fans. I hope to see a massive reduction in gender discrimination in professional and collegiate sports, especially with more equal funding, in the coming years, a progressive step that will ideally carry into all areas of life. And at the very least, I'd love to see this stigma surrounding girls who watch and LOVE sports melt away. Heck ya, I watch hockey! I know the rules of the game, many of the players (especially on the STL Blues), and can shout out most of the penalties, too!

So excuse me while I turn on my TV, wave my rally towel at whichever game is going on, and call out any haters on foul play.