Wednesday, January 16, 2008

NCAA Division III Puts Some Limits on Coaches' Use of Male Practice Players

At the NCAA convention in Nashville earlier this week, the NCAA Division III Management Council enacted limits on the use of male practice players in women’s sports. Under the new regulation, Division III coaches are limited during their season to using male practice players at one practice per week and may not use more male practice players than half the number of the sport's starting squad. Male practice players continue to be unregulated in Divisions I and II.

The proposal, which narrowly passed, has been controversial since it was taken up by the NCAA's Committee on Women's Athletics over a year ago. Some argue that male practice players are good for women's sports because playing against men who are bigger, stronger, and faster can help female athletes improve their skills.* But others argue that using male practice players reduces practice time of non-starters, a consequence that is particularly inconsistent with the participatory spirit of Division III. (Initially, the CWA also objected to male practice players for their potential to reinforce generalizations about the inferiority of female athletes. But as the debate progressed, the "quality of athlete experience" seemed to emerge as the preferred argument of those desiring to limit the use of male practice players.)

Notably, the student voice on the Council -- the Student Athlete Advisory Committee -- supported the limits, which I think must have given a lot of credibility to arguments about the effect of male practice players on the student-athlete experience, on which students are the experts. The modest limits that passed seem to me a valid compromise -- on the one hand minimizing the potential reduction in participation of non-starters whose practice time is most likely displaced by the men, while on the other hand providing coaches with some opportunity (once a week in season, and whenever they want out of season) to use the tactic at their discretion. If it's true that, as many supporters of male practice players point out, most coaches use male practice players responsibly, then these limits are not likely to impinge coaches' discretion all that much.

*Another argument against the proposal to limit male practice players, which I heard from a D-III AD I admire, is that overregulation in general is contrary to the spirit of Division III. He thinks that the market provides better enforcement than bureaucracy, at least at schools where athletes pay their own way. Who's going to pay to play for a coach that gives your practice time to male mercenaries? Or, applied to other contexts of NCAA regulation: Who's going to pay tuition to a school with a dismall graduation rate for student athletes?