By Dick Patrick, USA TODAY
Maryland junior Laura Harper missed the basketball team’s male practice players at Christmas break workouts when they weren’t on campus. The Terrapins got tired of going against each other and wanted to face bigger, faster, stronger opponents.
“It was sad not having our practice guys,” the 6-5 post player says.
Harper also thought their absence contributed to the team being outrebounded for just the second time in two seasons in a Jan. 3 win against North Carolina State.
“When you’re going against 6-4, 200-pound guys, you have to be aggressive,” Harper says. “It just makes the level of practice higher, more exciting, more physical. When you get in a game, it’s second nature to take the contact. Our guys make us a better tream.”
If the NCAA’s Committee on Women’s Athletics (CWA) got its way, male practice players for female teams would be banned for all sports. The CWA says the presence of males decreases opportunities for women.
The CWA wrote last month that use of males “violates the spirit of gender equity and Title IX” and “to have talented, capable female student-athletes stand on the sidelines during official practice while the team’s starters practice against ‘more talented men’ is a lost opportunity.”
Women’s basketball coaches, players and administrators are howling loudest. “I know this is the most critical issue that’s come our way in women’s basketball in some time,” Rutgers coach Vivian Stringer says. “It impacts our game tremendously.”
The typical profile of a male practice player is that of an accomplished high school player who still loves to compete but can’t make the college men’s team. Coaches are looking for smart, talented players to run opponents’ schemes and challenge their teams in drills.
The NCAA is circulating questionnaires on the issue among players and will discuss the results. The issue could be up for legislation at the 2008 NCAA Convention. At the NCAA convention in January a vote on a Division III proposition to significantly limit the use of male players was tabled.
“Our coaches overwhelmingly support the use of male practice players,” says Beth Bass, CEO of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA), who interpreted the Division III tabling as a positive sign. DePaul coach Doug Bruno, president of the WBCA, believes players also overwhelmingly approve the practice players.
“The greater majority of coaches that use male players never use them at the expense of opportunity for any female players,” he says. "There are cases of coaches who will play the males against just the first team while others stand and watch. Those are isolated and justifiably need to be cleared up.
“To throw the baby out with the bath water is ridiculous. There’s a misconception that these guys are in there every day for 21/2 hours and a lot of (scholarship) players are standing by idly. The guys aren’t there every day. Sometimes they’re only there for 20 minutes.”
Popularized by Summitt
Janet Kittell, an associate athletic director at Indiana and CWA chairperson, is skeptical of claims that most coaches are pro-male players. “I understand that the high-profile coaches have had a lot of success with (males in practices). I don’t think it’s every coach.”
Kittell thinks players, especially those deep on the bench, are reluctant to voice resentment publicly about losing scrimmage and drill time to males: “This will be a source of major controversy as it continues.”
Says Stringer: “It’s the male practice players that allow us to get better. … Male practice players are the most important element to the continued growth of women’s basketball players.”
Tennessee’s Pat Summitt, who has won a record six NCAA titles, generally gets credit for popularizing the use of males in practice in the 1970s. But other coaches including Margaret Wade, who built a dynasty at Delta (Miss.) State in the mid-'70s, Jody Conradt at Texas and Bruno in a pro league were using males regularly. Males now are a staple throughout Divisions I-III, including at North Carolina and Duke, the lone unbeatens in Division I.
“You need to be hard-working and humble,” says Maryland practice player Drew Ryan, who played junior college basketball last year and aspires to be a college coach. “If you’re not humble, you’re going to be humiliated.”
The practice players — who must register with the NCAA but get nothing more than workout gear and an occasional media guide photo — typically become fans who bring other males to games. The Maryland male players paid their way to Boston last year for the Final Four. As the Terps celebrated their national title, they waved down the men.
“They take a vested interest in us,” says Michigan State’s Katrina Grantham, a reserve who doesn’t feel short-changed in practices. “It’s kind of like a big brother or kid brother relationship.”
Sometimes it’s different. Notre Dame has had two players and a manager marry practice players. “I get so many calls and letters from the guys’ parents saying what a great experience it’s been for them,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw says.
Ohio State coach Jim Foster, a close friend of McGraw’s, has heard such stories. “Right next to that, I’d like to hear the stories of kids who didn’t get to practice and had to stand and watch,” he says.
Foster stopped using males shortly after he left Vanderbilt in 2002 for Ohio State. “The male practice squad was not making my role players better players and giving them the opportunities and the reps necessary,” he says. “With so little time to work with players in the offseason and no time in the summer, to take even more time and more reps from a segment of players almost dooms them to mediocrity.”
Coach Andy Landers did not use males his first 27 seasons at Georgia. He did this year to ease the strain on several players coming off injuries, crediting the decision with helping his No. 15 team (14-4 overall, 2-2 in the ACC). “This issue goes beyond a simple scope,” he says. “From a tactical viewpoint, are they good for us? Yes. Might we overuse them and create a situation where our players suffer? Yes. There are points on both sides that are valid. There ought to be a compromise that works for us.”
Posted 1/15/2007 11:02 PM ET
Some say men make the women better players. Others say they deny opportunities to women’s players.
WHAT THEY SAY
The NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics (CWA) says the use of male practice players sends a message to female student-athletes they “are not good enough to make our starters better, so we need to use men instead.” That approach, the CWA adds, “implies an archaic notion of male preeminence” that impedes progress “toward gender equity and inclusion.” What others are saying:
“If there are coaches out there keeping their second five on the sideline watching for two hours while their first five or six are playing in practices, then that coach is not going to be any good. That’s a coach’s issue. You can’t legislate stupidity.”
— Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma
“This is strictly a training issue, not an equity issue. We have other stronger and more important equity issues facing us — number of sports, number of scholarships, number of women in the athletic department.”
— Texas women’s AD Chris Plonsky
“I’m all for women. Hell, I am one. But this is political correctness gone awry.”
— Michigan State coach Joanne P. McCallie
“The use of male practice players is good. I think the abuse of them is bad. I don’t think having male practice players in the gym every day doing drills and taking spots from female athletes is good for team morale.”
— Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer