Kathrin Ress grabs a pass, swings left, and lays the ball in the
basket. The whoops of her teammates echo in the gym.
That the 6-foot, 4-inch sophomore just beat her defender in a
practice drill is unremarkable - the Boston College forward scored
25 points on Villanova back in January.
And that the opponent Ms. Ress outhustled was male - B.C. junior
and former Los Angeles high school standout Terence Balagia - might
by now be unsurprising, too.
Such top women's programs as B.C., Connecticut, Tennessee, and
Louisiana State have tapped nonscholarship male undergraduate
athletes as practice partnersfor a decade or so. The men's bulk,
speed, and agility create a kind of medicine-ball effect many
coaches say they value during the season-long drive toward the NCAA
Division 1 tournament, which tips off this weekend.
But having a male practice squad to play against female teams, as
is also done in other sports, may be in peril. NCAA officials have
vowed to investigate whether it poses safety and liability issues -
or lessens opportunities for women trying to sustain more than 30
years of progress since the passage of Title IX.
"Is it appropriate for a female athlete to be standing on the
sidelines watching a male practice player compete?" asks Darlene
Bailey, chair of the NCAA Committee on Women's Athletics. "Does that
diminish their enthusiasm for staying on the team, if they might be
a walk-on athlete? And does it diminish their opportunity to improve
if they're not playing against the best?"
Ms. Bailey says no single event or complaint triggered the new
scrutiny. But she maintains that while some coaches find male
practice players to be useful, others may feel that as long as such
players are permitted, they must use them just to keep up.
Sometimes men serve as stopgaps. At top-seeded LSU, male practice
players were dismissed for the season back in November, according to
Brian Miller, a spokesman for the athletic department. Reason: a
deeper than usual roster of female scholarship athletes.
Some observers call the new NCAA attention an inevitable result
of the growing national profile of all aspects of the women's game -
and of the media's love of a good yarn. One perennial angle: Meet
the guys who play with the girls.
"We get five requests a year on that story," says Randy Press,
assistant director of athletic communications at the University of
But for at least some women players, the arrangement has long
since become more integral than odd.
"I've been practicing with guys all four years," says B.C. senior
Jessalyn Deveny, an All-Big East shooting guard who was the team's
high scorer this season until being sidelined last month with an
injury. "They're such an asset, with their quickness and physical
stature.... They help get us ready for any opponent."
Experts on women's collegiate athletics appear wary of any new
restrictions, or a ban.
"Somebody has to show why there is a need [for a ban], and
nothing I've heard so far has sounded compelling to me," says Donna
Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation in East
Meadow, N.Y. She notes that from what she has seen in different
sports, women's teams benefit from practicing with men. …