Monday, November 06, 2006

Male Practice Players in Women's Sports

from the NCAA News, November 6, 2006

Better. Faster. Stronger. In athletics, we constantly try to attain these goals. Athletes spend hours in the weight room and on the track to improve their strength and speed. They stay after practice and work on their shots. Coaches scour video looking for weaknesses to exploit. All in the name of better, faster, stronger.

But sometimes our vision becomes clouded by looking only at the benefits and failing to recognize whether the end justifies the means. When it comes to the use of male practice players in NCAA women’s athletics, for example, nobody seems to have a concrete answer. Even those who support their use are beginning to wonder about the ethics behind the practice. We love the payoff, but the cost might be too much.

The main issue at hand is whether the use of male practice players takes away opportunities from female athletes who are sitting idle at their expense. True, the female athletes who are opposite the male practice players in drills enjoy being pushed to the limits of their athletic abilities, and they love the edge it provides them in the game. But is that enough? These athletes usually are the starters on a squad. Do we sacrifice the growth of a team’s depth to push its elite? Is that really what the NCAA stands for these days?

It’s a tough question and even the student-athletes can’t figure out exactly how to best serve the interests of female players. Just like coaches, we want to rack up the wins and we’re dedicated to doing what it takes to get results. At the same time, most of the membership is made up of the non-elite, as are many squads. In women’s basketball, there are five starters and 15 available scholarships. In a fully funded program, the potential is there to deny almost two-thirds of the athletes on a roster the opportunity to earn playing time by improving in practice. That opportunity is what we are here for and it’s what gives the NCAA lasting power in the college arena.

Playing an NCAA sport can be compared to living the American Dream. Every 5-year-old wants to play for their favorite college team, but not that many actually will get there. For those of us who do make it, challenges often await. Injuries, attitude, prejudice — so many things can hold an athlete back, but male practice players shouldn’t be among them.

So how do we deal with that conundrum? The growing consensus is not simply to ban the use of male practice players in NCAA women’s athletics. Coaches and student-athletes agree that these young men are performing a valuable service for women’s athletics and that their use is pushing competitive levels to never-before-seen heights — and we don’t want to give that up. However, there also is a growing recognition that lines need to be drawn.

The Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee proposed limiting the use of male practice players in a way that allows teams to gain from their strengths and also gives its competing female athletes the opportunities they are seeking in college athletics. Judging from the discussions and feedback coming from the various cabinets, those limitations seem to be settling into a two-pronged set of standards involving both the number of hours that male practice players log during a practice week and the number of players used compared to the starting squad size. (The Division III membership will consider a similar set of standards proposed by the Division III Student-Athlete Advisory Committee at the 2007 NCAA Convention.)

As the stakes get higher and the level of competition rises in women’s athletics — and as the need for that edge over an opponent intensifies — the room for exploitation grows as well. The most responsible thing that membership can do at this point is to be active and draw a line before it can be crossed. That mind-set puts the well-being of student-athletes ahead of victory — which is exactly where it should always be.

Better. Faster. Stronger. The female athletes of the NCAA are all of these things and continue to break through barriers with zeal. Let’s just make sure that as an organization, the NCAA continues to be in the business of removing barriers to opportunity, not keeping them in place.

Beth Waggoner played volleyball at Winthrop University and is a member of the Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.