Let the Women Play

NCAA colleges should agree to limit the use of male players in practices for women’s teams, argues Donna Ledwin.


January 10, 2008

Leading up to the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s annual convention this week, most of the discussion among colleges that belong to Division III has focused on the future of the membership at the NCAA’s nonscholarship competitive level. Largely overlooked has been proposed legislation

to limit the use of male practice players which may well be the most controversial piece of legislation voted on at this year’s convention.

The Division III proposal is fairly moderate: the currently unrestricted use of male practice players would be limited to one day a week during the traditional championship season, and the number of male participants would be limited to half the starting squad size (rounded up, in the case of uneven starting numbers). Since the last convention, when the proposal was tabled for more data, I have kept my ear to the ground on discussions at the national level, most of which centered around responses from members of Division I. In the microcosm of my own Division III conference, we have recently revisited the arguments pro and con as well. I respectfully offer two reasons to support this legislation, and a recommendation for taking the discussion further on campus regardless of the outcome of the vote:

1. It creates a level playing field for those who aspire to higher competitive levels.

What is athletics about in Division III? As a component of the broader educational experience, there is first and foremost a participation opportunity. Once established, there is the chance to achieve a higher level of success within that opportunity. In other words (in the scope of this discussion about women’s athletics), you do your best to assemble a group of women who are interested in a sport (in addition to getting a college degree), educate and train them in the rules and skills of performing that sport, match them up against a group of women of like interest, and see who wins the game. There are a number of tools at hand—coaches, the weight room, nutrition counseling, summer leagues, private lessons—to help achieve higher levels of competency. The fact that we have coaches who have gone beyond these standard tools to the use of male practice players to push our women “to the next level” during the 19-week Division III playing season is a situation that bears scrutiny.

This legislation would scale back the arms race that has stepped precariously into the realm of potential Title IX violation. It certainly does not eliminate the opportunity for female athletes, if they choose, to seek practice and even competition opportunities against stronger, faster, taller young men. It simply “limits” it to the remaining 33 weeks of the year when they are not “in season” with their college teams, and it ensures that healthy women are not sitting on the sideline while men take their places in practice situations.

2. It encourages a shared institutional commitment to building roster sizes of women’s teams and discourages stopgap strategies.

Good financial planning is predicated on a variety of sound spending, saving and investment practices. If you are trying to eliminate debt, it is not sound practice to use a credit card to pay those bills. Male practice players are the credit cards of building solid rosters of female athletes. For institutions struggling with recruiting or retaining female athletes in any given sport, use of male practice players is a short term fix at best; reliance on them only delays improvement by masking the underlying problem. While weak recruiting efforts by a coach may be at fault at some institutions, it is wrong to place the blame solely on the coach or the athletics department. Recruiting in Division III is an institutional responsibility based on the divisional philosophy that athletes are students first, and there must be a coordinated effort (including a “spend money to make money” approach with recruiting budget allocations) in programs where a team or teams are consistently falling below viable roster sizes.

It is important to note that there are more than 6 million girls participating in high school sports in this country, yet there are only 166,000 participating in college athletics--less than 3 percent of the pool. The rationale that “girls just don’t want to play” does not hold sway in the face of these numbers. Injuries can also decimate healthy rosters—but that can happen with men’s rosters too. Is the solution to allow part-time students or some other such stop gap measure if this happens with a men’s team? I don’t know too many people in Division III who would support that option, but if we are obligated to treat our men and women equitably, then perhaps that discussion must be on the table as well, or we need to eliminate such quick fixes altogether.

The proposed legislation allows for women’s teams who might have a roster equivalent of less than two full starting squads to practice in a scrimmage setting with male practice players once a week; coaches would use other drills and skill instruction the remainder of the time. It also allows bona fide coaches (whether paid or voluntary) to participate in scrimmage-type situations at their discretion. In other words, you can use your credit card to manage temporary shortfalls, but there are spending limits, and everyone needs to work together to find better cash flow for the long haul.


Regardless of your institution’s position, this proposal should at minimum prompt a healthy and objective re-visitation of gender equity and Title IX practices in the athletic department. Last year, an e-mail inquiry sent through the National Association of Division III Administrators' listserv to members asking them to identify the Title IX coordinator on their campuses raised a red flag on the lack of knowledge of this subject. The majority who responded indicated that they (mainly athletics directors or senior woman administrators) were primarily responsible for this duty. The fact is, Title IX is a federal law that affects far more than just athletics, including academic policies, student services, housing, financial aid, and all student organizations. It is thus highly unlikely that an athletics department staff member would be responsible for all of these areas, in addition to athletics. This misunderstanding can have serious institutional consequences.

I would suggest that institutions use discussion of this legislative proposal as an opportunity to do a Title IX and gender equity review of their athletic departments. A recently released study authored by John Cheslock, Ph. D., of the Center for the Study of Higher Education, University of Arizona (with support from the Women’s Sports Foundation) analyzing Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act (EADA) data indicates that Title IX compliance is far from a fait accompli. Presidents, chancellors, athletic directors and Title IX coordinators can take a look at how their institution is graded in this study to get an initial sense of their athletic departments’ level of compliance. It should also prompt an examination of institutional compliance using the “three-prong” test approved by the Office of Civil Rights. A comprehensive Q&A regarding gender equity and Title IX compliance along with other educational resources can be found on the NCAA’s Web site.

Thirty five years after the passage of Title IX, there is still plenty of evidence to suggest that gender equity practices continue to bear examination both within and outside of athletic departments on our campuses. Considering that the provision of equitable participation opportunities for males and females is one of the core tenets of the Division III philosophy, limiting the use of male practice players would be a good faith demonstration of Division III’s commitment to this important principle.


Donna Ledwin is the commissioner of the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference and a member of the NCAA Minority Opportunities and Interests Committee. She is also the mother of a 10-year-old daughter who lives to play ice hockey.


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