Walk into just about any gym where a college women’s basketball team is practicing this winter, and chances are you’ll see men running up and down the court and battling for rebounds alongside the female players.
The squads aren’t co-ed, at least formally so. But the vast majority of college women’s teams practice against a regular cadre of male volunteers – usually students who competed in high school but couldn’t cut it at the men’s collegiate level -- in the belief that going up against bigger, stronger, faster men will sharpen the female players’ skills and toughen them up for games against their peers.
Now the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Committee on Women’s Athletics wants the practice stopped, arguing that it undermines the spirit of Title IX and gender equity. Not only does the approach reduce the time that female players themselves get to work on their skills, the panel argued, but it “implies an archaic notion of male preeminence that continues to impede progress toward gender equity and inclusion.”
“The CWA feels that the trend of the use of male practice players does much more harm than good in the long run and discriminates against some of our female athletes,” the NCAA committee wrote in its statement this month calling for the association to ban the practice. (NOTE: The NCAA's Web site is down for maintenance, so this link and others from the NCAA site are not working right now.)
The topic is being hotly debated within the NCAA, and opinion is divided within the association and the world of women’s sports broadly. The NCAA’s Division III colleges will consider restricting the practice at the association’s annual convention next month, and Divisions I and II are studying the issue.
It is not at all clear that the stance of the Committee on Women’s Athletics represents the views of other advocates for women’s sports. Among the members of the NCAA’s women’s basketball committee, “there are varying ways we feel about this,” says Judy Southard, Title IX coordinator at Louisiana State University, who heads that panel.
Women’s basketball coaches overwhelmingly support the use of male players, according to a survey by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association. "With all the issues we could be rallying around for women’s athletics, to make sure we’re being truly integrated, it’s mind boggling that this is what’s getting all the focus,” said Beth Bass, who heads the basketball coaches’ group. “Most of us grew up playing with and against the guys, and it’s how a lot of us improved. That’s what we’re looking at here: 'Let me have the opportunity to improve.'”
Bass’s group produced a position paper this fall that cited several reasons why the use of male practice players is a plus. Most college teams (especially in basketball, but the practice extends to sports such as volleyball, soccer and even hockey) use men’s teams to mimic the styles and schemes of their opponents, so that players on the women’s team can concentrate on learning their own plays. Second, “because males are often bigger, stronger and faster than female players, women student-athletes should practice skills against them in order to improve their skills…. For example, in a shooting drill, taller male practice players might stand in front of the shooter as the defender, requiring her to learn how to alter her shot.”
The Committee on Women’s Athletics sought to rebut those positions in its own statement last week. “Studying your opponent is a major part of game preparation,” the panel said. The main effect of having male players stand in for opponents is that “each week hours of practice/scrimmage time usually given to female non-starters in game preparation will now be assumed by male, non-student-athletes. The CWA sees this as a significant lost opportunity for female student-athletes.”
Women can find other methods of improving than playing against men, the panel suggests. “There are many ways (training, nutrition, etc.) that female student-athletes can work on getting faster and stronger,” the panel argues. “Athletes at every level have continued to evolve through drills and practice without including bigger, stronger and faster opponents in these drills.” Including male players in these drills also results in female athletes “standing by as males take positions the women have earned through years of dedication to their sport and missing their own chance to improve their skills.”
Although the committee’s statement focuses on the practical implications of using male practice players -- in the form of diminished practice time for women -- philosophical objections seem to underlie the panel’s passionate view. “The message to female student-athletes seems to be, `you are not good enough to make our starters better, so we need to use men instead.’ This approach implies an archaic notion of male preeminence that continues to impede progress toward gender equity and inclusion. Without the use of male practice players, does women’s athletics not inherently retain its own unique quality of competition and skill?”
In their responses to the panel’s call for banning male participation in women’s practices, many female athletes and coaches seem mystified that the committee appears reluctant to accept that physical differences remain between men and women. "Men are so much more athletic than females,” Renee Montgomery, a junior guard at the University of Connecticut, told the New Haven Register. “When you are playing against guys who can do what you can do and better every day, it is going to make you better."
"This is the politically correct gone awry," Joanne P. McCallie, Michigan State University’s women’s basketball coach, told USA Today. "It's absolutely absurd. It's short-sighted. It's got nothing to do with equity and everything to do with politics."
Members of the NCAA’s Division III will have the first crack at deciding whether the crackdown on men’s players has traction. They will weigh a proposal at the association’s meeting in Orlando next month that would allow women’s teams to continue to practice against men, but in severely limited ways: They could do so only once a week during the traditional season, and the number of male players they could use would would be limited to fewer than half of the number of players required to field a starting team in their sport (for example, a basketball team with five starting players could use only two male practice players).
The Women’s Basketball Coaches Association has put forward an alternative proposal that would restrict the use of male players to three practices a week, and limit their number to the number of players in a starting lineup (so a basketball team could use a full squad of five male players.)
Bass, of the basketball coaches’ group, said she hopes NCAA officials will recognize that if individual colleges or coaches have abused the use of male practice players in ways that really limit opportunity for women, those abuses are best dealt with by administrators at those colleges, rather than through sweeping rule changes that “throw the baby out with the bath water.”