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NCAA Gives New Meaning to Gender-Bias

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"We talkin' about practice! Not a game. We talkin' about practice, man. We ain't talking about the game. But we talkin' about practice!" No, we are not talking about the infamous press conference in May of 2002 and Allen Iverson's response to questions as to why he missed practices with his Philadelphia 76ers teammates. Yet, in hindsight and compared to the esteemed wisdom of the National Collegiate Athletic Association's (NCAA) Committee on Women's Athletics (CWA) and their recent revelation, Iverson's response seems quite apropos.

In a world where political correctness has run amok in every facet of U.S. society, why should the NCAA be any different than any other bureaucratic organization or private corporation? In fact, the NCAA in its efforts to try to separate itself from the image of it being an elitist governing body and only about the scholastic educations of our collegiate athletes, it once again fails us. While trying to convince educators and the public-at-large that it is all about the institution of education, as it prevails by operating similarly to a revenue generating entity, it continues to stumble upon its own misguided principles.

Title IX was enacted into law in 1972 in order to promote sports scholarships and equity for female student athletes seeking a secondary education. NCAA division schools received revenue to support various women's team and sports commensurate to the men's athletic programs. Yet, in its latest attempt to show how it is conscious of gender-equity in Title IX compliance, the CWA has hijacked Title IX and has misappropriated its original intent.

In fact, the CWA needed the past two years to study the latest twist on gender equity or gender-bias, depending upon from which vantage point it is seen, on the issue of the use of male varsity athletes as volunteer practice players primarily for Division I women's basketball teams. The CWA recommended on December 13, 2006 to ban the use of non-scholarship eligible enrolled male varsity athletes from participating from any practices or training within women's intercollegiate athletics programs at Division I or Division II NCAA colleges or universities. Division III already adheres to such a regulation.

Although not yet a mandate, the CWA believes that, "The use of male practice players violates the spirit of gender equity and Title IX and that any inclusion of male practice players results in diminished participation opportunities for female student athletes, contrary to the NCAA's principles of gender equity, non-discrimination, competitive equity and student athlete well-being."

But contrary to what the CWA believes, most Division I and successful women's basketball coaches of both genders, coaches of soccer and volleyball teams as well as the Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) believe that such a requirement would interfere with the development of female athletes and would provide a diminished return to their star athletes, should they be forced to eliminate the male practice players. Fortunately, NCAA committees, conferences and schools will be able to make proposals on the subject during the next year. A vote on the issue by the NCAA would not take place until at least January 2008.

But players such as Erlana Larkins and Ivory Latta, both All-Americans and stars of the elite women's basketball program at the University of North Carolina, relish the time they have playing against the guys. Their practices are intense and the height and strength of the men enhance their training drills, thus rewarding them in actual games. "Love 'em," says Latta. "That's how they make us better. They give us attitude. They give us the killer instinct." And Larkin agrees. "I don't see us getting any better with girls practicing against us and practicing against our teammates."

Likewise, Duke Basketball coach, Gail Goestenkors, endorses the practice of the men players and questions how they would get enough women players to challenge the height and jump capabilities of the very tallest and most accomplished female basketball players. And it is in that regard that the CWA overlooked the subtle accomplishments in women's sports since 1972. There are remaining gripes about shortages and inequities in the number of female coaches and the inability of women's sports, other than women's basketball, still receiving little attention or enough scholarships. Yet, when it comes to basketball, it has led the way in women's collegiate athletics. And so, if it ain't broke don't fix it.

Steeped in its own myopia, CWA committee members such as Patrick Nero, Commissioner of the America East Conference laments, "How are they to get better if they're sitting in practice? It's one thing to not be playing in a game because they haven't reached that level yet, but for them to sit through an entire practice while men run up and down with their teammates, we just think it's really against the spirit of Title IX."

But to assume that because two or three male practice players equates no practice time for bench or second team players is misguided and gives little credit to the individual coaches who stand to lose games unless they practice all of their players. Just because the starters are practicing with men, does not mean that the bench players are not practicing with them at all. For the most part, they are actually practicing against the starters who are only made better by practicing at a higher level.

Also not given credence is the problem of the number of scholarships offered to female athletes. Not every school has the resources. According to Goestenkors, she only has 11 or 12 players on scholarship. "Now I have to have 15 on scholarships just so I can [have enough] to practice." And who can argue with Tennessee coach, Pat Summitt, who has won more games than any other coach in the history of women's basketball. She weighed in last week and said, "I think it would be detrimental to women's basketball. If you look at what has happened, the parity in the game, the fact that we have male practice players, they challenge us. It's not like they take away opportunities. On the contrary, they provide opportunities for our teams to work on specific game preparation."

And also probably unknown to most people, according to Coach Summitt, when she coached the U.S. Olympic Women's Basketball team as far back as 1984 she recalls, "We played against one female team in the exhibition games. The rest of the time, we played against males. The guys made us better."

Russ Rose, women's volleyball coach at Penn State University notes, "I feel comfortable that every player in my gym has the opportunity to make progress because they are allowed to come in and get individual instruction anytime they want. I think it would do more damage to my second team to have the first team beat the heck out of them every day. Now, the second team has a chance to beat the first team on a daily basis, and some of those second team kids get a chance to elevate their play. You need your starting team on one side and a formidable opponent on the other."

And Stanford University women's volleyball coach, John Dunning, although he does not use male practice players says, "Good coaching is learning how to balance: to create in players a sense of self-esteem balanced with pushing them to get better. If you can create a setting in practice that's harder than games by having better people on the other side of the netas long as that's managed properlythen that certainly make sense."

While the NCAA remains dismayed about the lack of women's coaching opportunities, it props up its ill-serving methodology on gender equity through statistics which do not paint the entire picture. For example, in 1972 more than 90% of women's teams were coached by women. In 2006 this number has fallen dramatically to 42.4%. In 1972 more than 90% of women's athletic programs were administered by female athletic directors. In 2006 92% of Division I Athletic Directors are male and 8% are female. Yet, since 1972, the quality of the play of female athletes and the strength of individual programs has improved significantly.

The silver lining, which the NCAA and CWA need to take a serious look at, is the actual realized accomplishment of the women athletes in these programs, who exemplify the true meaning of the student athlete. With the exception of the WNBA, which after 10 years is running on fumes going into 2007, there are no professional athletic opportunities for women athletes. For those who are lucky enough to reach the Olympics in individual sports such as track and field or swimming, it is a long, long road, and they rarely ever reach the compensation or notoriety of their male counterparts.

College is the time for female athletes to shine, be it from the expertise of a male coach, female coach, or male practice players. And with the advent of the NCAA Final Four Basketball Championship, by way of the success of the men's tournament, the women's NCAA Final Four focuses more attention on women's sports than any other event with the exception of the Olympics. By extension, a positive and supportive environment for the future of all girls across the U.S. from all walks of life is finally emerging. And those girls in search of all kinds of future endeavors are no longer pure fantasy but translate into real possibilities.

And for those of you too young to remember or not born yet, there was a time when a male coach would never want to be associated with coaching women. They would not take those coaching jobs because they thought it was a step down, that women were not worth the effort and looked upon it as a humiliation. And there certainly was a time when you would never get an undergraduate male athlete willing to volunteer his free time to play basketball with a girl. In fact these guys are not just practice players but have become the designated cheerleaders for the women. They then encourage their male friends to go to games and support women's sports at their schools. So, there are hidden trade offs too.

Women's sports will continue to thrive because of the attention paid and insight given by men in collaboration with women. Gender equity will not evolve without the support of men. Its intent was not to bar men. Its intent was to help women succeed. And unless the NCAA realizes that, Title IX will not fulfill its intended purpose.

Copyright ę2006 Diane M. Grassi
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Diane M. Grassi is an investigative journalist and reporter providing topical and in-depth articles and analysis on U.S. public policy and governmental affairs, including key federal and state legislation as well as court decisions relative to the (more...)
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