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.
CHESTNUT HILL, MASS. — 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.
"You just have to be careful that you don't use the men for practice too often," says Allyce Najimy, senior associate director of the Center for the Study of Sport and Society at Northeastern University in Boston. "Because the only reason some of the women are on the team is to help with the practices until they're good enough to start."
In another sense, that "good enough" issue could cloud outsiders' perceptions, others say. "Maybe there's a negative association that the women have to compete against the guys because [women are] 'not as good,' " says Carol Barr, a sports-management expert and Title IX consultant at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
But Ms. Barr is quick to add that she has not seen that attitude among women athletes - and she fondly remembers her own mixed-sex field hockey practices at Iowa State in the 1980s. Male players from India and Pakistan joined in, and helped the women's team improve.
For men, the interaction isn't light fare. Cathy Inglese, the B.C. women's head coach, recalls an exchange several seasons back with former B.C. quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, by then a pro football player.
Mr. Hasselbeck had been practicing with the women's basketball team, going up against power forward Becky Gottstein. One day he didn't show up. Ms. Inglese found him in the weight room and asked why he hadn't appeared. "And he said 'Cath, I was so sore from yesterday's practice, and Becky bumping me, I needed a day of rest,' " she recalls.
Others raise questions about women players being on the receiving end of collisions. "You do worry about that," says Inglese. "If a guy goes in and hurts [a player], what will you do about that? That's why you've got to get guys who aren't going out there for their own egos."
"Any coach is very experienced in making sure that they set up fair and safe matchups in practice situations," says Ms. Lopiano.
Taking a breather during a B.C. practice, Junior Desrosiers and Alex Stuart speak of the women players with respect.
"If they weren't good, we wouldn't be here," says Mr. Desrosiers, who played high school basketball in Cambridge, Mass. Adds Mr. Stuart, from Storrs, Conn.: "They're tougher than we are, in a lot of respects."
Mr. Balagia, the player who had been guarding Ress under the rim, says he tried out for the men's team as a walk-on, and may do so again next season. "But I love this," he says of the women's practice. "I might just do this again."
Inglese says previous male practice players have improved enough to make the men's team. Others have gone on to coach women at other schools. Generally, they end up cheering at home games from behind the bench.
Several supported the team by showing up at the NCAA tournament selection party early this week wearing jackets and ties, notes Inglese.
"With more [away] games on TV, these guys now follow us, and they [also] follow the women's game," she says. "They want to see who they'll have to mimic in practice."