In Practice, a Ludicrous Declaration by the NCAA

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By Sally Jenkins
Saturday, December 16, 2006

This week, the NCAA Committee on Women's Athletics declared it wants to disallow the use of male practice players in women's sports. Now, you might ask, how far down the list of problems in collegiate athletics do you have to go before you arrive at practice players? But the committee, that august body of small-minded functionaries, seems to think it's hugely important, so it has issued a "position statement" on the subject. There would seem to be so many other pressing questions before us, such as why doesn't anybody at the university level get fired for stupidity anymore? But the NCAA has spoken: No more stinking boys.

Male practice players don't get scholarships; they don't even get a sandwich. They volunteer. They're mostly used in basketball because they are, on the average, taller than most women. There's not a female ballplayer in the country who doesn't play pickup with men, or a coach who doesn't think they help the game. Yet somehow the committee has found that these selfless guys represent "a lost opportunity" for women, "a threat to the growth of female participation at all levels," and that they violate Title IX.

My question for the committee is, if a bunch of male scrubs represent a threat to women's sports, then what does that make U-Conn. Coach Geno Auriemma? If they want to bar men from even practicing on a voluntary basis with women, are they going after male coaches' jobs next? Because by full extension of the committee's specious reasoning, men, doing anything at all, come at the expense of women. That's what that statement says.

The committee's "position statement" would be funny, except that it's not. The NCAA's Division III is getting ready to vote on the issue, which means it could work its way up to Division I soon. And if the NCAA is about to mandate the total separation of men and women, we need to talk about that.

If women can't practice with men, how are we supposed to compete with them? Men and women need to play together in order to understand each other, and the frankly quite interesting nature of the world. (Personally, I went to an all-girls' high school, and without my two brothers, I'd have never learned a tackle drill they called "Chicago Bears!" or another charming exercise entitled "Vulcan Death Grip.")

Title IX is meant to ensure equal treatment of men and women in education. It's a tough law to implement on the playing field because there's a central tension at the heart of it: How do we make sure both genders get fair opportunities, given that they sometimes have widely divergent interests -- not to mention quite visible gaps in height, weight and strength -- especially when we don't fully understand why these differences exist?

Educators have grappled with this in the classroom with no clear answer. Single-sex education remains controversial. The Department of Education is allowing public schools to explore it on a voluntary basis, but cautions that the results are "equivocal," with no solid evidence of "benefit or harm." A 2001 report in California stated that while single-sex schools or classes had some benefits, it doesn't erase problems such as gender stereotyping, and harassment, and in some cases stereotypical behavior worsened. A 1990 report by the American Association of University Women stated that single-sex education actually led to "a dichotomous understanding of gender."

The bottom line is that while single-sex education is worth trying in some instances, the Department of Education wouldn't dream of requiring it. Know why? Because there's a word for that: segregation.

Yet the NCAA women's committee somehow has found clear answers where educational experts can't. It contends that men on the practice court reinforce an "archaic notion of male preeminence that continues to impede progress toward gender equity and inclusion."

What's archaic, of course, is the idea that difference means inferiority, and that separate is equal.

The irony is that male practice players actually serve the cause of female athletes on campus. Coaches and ballplayers like to practice against them because they're bigger -- American men are on average about five inches taller, according to the Bureau of Vital Statistics -- and help make women better. Anyone who thinks they're automatically superior ought to go to a practice at U-Conn. or Tennessee and watch the women beat the snot out of the male scrubs in a scrimmage. Last year, Connecticut's Ann Strother gave one a busted nose.

"This is the politically correct gone awry," Michigan State Coach Joanne P. McCallie said. "It's absolutely absurd. It's shortsighted. It's got nothing to do with equity and everything to do with politics."

You wonder if, underneath the political correctness, someone is grinding an ax. This brings us to the second reason why the committee's position is not funny: It reveals the broken workings of the NCAA. This is a perfectly lucid window into who runs the organization: deputy administrators from smaller schools, with a tendency toward chronic and wrongheaded attempts to legislate parity. My bet is some folks on the committee are just paranoid that male practice players might give someone an edge.

What's clear is that no one on the committee has listened to the players or coaches -- whose Women's Basketball Coaches Association endorses male practice players -- or been to a workout lately. One of the silliest assertions is that the men relegate female reserves to the sidelines. Anyone who has spent 10 minutes in an actual gym knows that coaches rotate players on the court. Male players don't deny the second stringers reps.

Who are these committee members, anyway? Among them are the volleyball coach from Muhlenberg College, the chair of physical education at Randolph-Macon and a professor of marketing at Delta State. I have an idea for a new member to join these folks: that mother from Atlanta who's trying to ban Harry Potter books because they promote witchcraft.

Title IX is meant to ensure fairness in the face of difference. It's not meant to force some lame idea of sameness, and any attempt to do so only creates new opponents to it. Male practice players are not a threat to Title IX. The real threat to Title IX is unreasonable and excessive application of the law by low-level administrators.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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