When Girls Train against the Guys, Is There a Loser? ; the NCAA Is Looking into Whether It's Unfair or Unsafe to Have Men Practice against Women's Basketball Teams, as Many of the Top Teams Do

Article excerpt

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 Connecticut.

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. …