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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    NCAA may ban men’s practice squad

    Brian Halbach, a player on the UA womens basketball teams mens practice squad, drives the lane on forward Rhaya Neabors Monday during practice in McKale Center. The NCAA is considering banning the use of mens practice squad for womens teams, a move UA head coach Joan Bonvicini strongly opposes.
    Brian Halbach, a player on the UA women’s basketball team’s men’s practice squad, drives the lane on forward Rhaya Neabors Monday during practice in McKale Center. The NCAA is considering banning the use of men’s practice squad for women’s teams, a move UA head coach Joan Bonvicini strongly opposes.

    Malia O’Neal brings the ball up in the backcourt at an Arizona women’s basketball practice, hounded by a bigger, stronger player who gives her no room to breathe.

    The point guard eventually passes it off to a teammate, but it’s like this throughout the scrimmage, with his heavy pressure defense eventually leading to a couple turnovers.

    His?

    That’s right. The Wildcats, like many of their peers across the nation, utilize a men’s practice squad to make them faster and quicker when they play against female competition.

    “”I do what I can,”” said Brian Halbach, the team manager and men’s practice squad player who guarded O’Neal. “”I have nothing to lose out there.””

    UA head coach Joan Bonvicini said she started using male managers to help out in practice about 15 years ago before the trend switched to having a separate male practice squad.

    The Arizona women typically use two or three men at a time during scrimmages. The practice squad also does drills with the women, and they even lift weights together.

    But much of this could soon be coming to an end.

    In December, the NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics released a position statement recommending the elimination of using male practice players throughout the NCAA – and not just in women’s basketball where it is most prevalent – stating it “”violates the spirit of gender equity and Title IX.””

    “”The committee believes that any inclusion of male practice players results in diminished participation opportunities for female student-athletes, contrary to the association’s principles of gender equity, nondiscrimination, competitive equity and student-athlete well-being,”” the release reads.

    The way a possible new rule would work, Bonvicini said, is each team would be allowed to use a man to make up for a woman who cannot practice, normally because of injuries, so they would always have 15 players available.

    With center Beatrice Bofia and forward Ché Oh out for the season, the Arizona team could use two men right now.

    “”That would be stupid,”” said forward Amina Njonkou when asked about getting rid of male practice players. “”They should let us play. They help the team get better. They help women’s basketball around the nation.””

    The CWA report cites three reasons to eliminate male practice squads, which Bonvicini and her squad dispute.

    Adding or taking away from practice?

    According to the report, men take away hours of practice and scrimmage time from female players, who must sit on the bench watching.

    But Bonvicini said this isn’t a problem in her program because all the Wildcat women participate in practice.

    “”The last thing I want to do is take away opportunities for our players,”” she said. “”Our kids don’t feel like that whatsoever. They like having guys in practice. They challenge them. They encourage them.””

    The men also serve as a scout team in a role Bonvicini could not find other women to perform. Any female talented enough to emulate the best players on opposing teams would likely either be on Bonvicini’s squad or another Division I team.

    Almost all of the men have played high school basketball and possess the skills to simulate the best Division-I women’s basketball players on the practice court.

    “”It helps us get prepared for other teams because they run other team’s plays. They’ll be like a player,”” said guard Joy Hollingsworth. “”Say if we play Stanford; one of them will be like (All-American guard) Candice Wiggins, another one will be like (All-Pac-10 center) Brooke Smith, so they’ll play like them with the hook shot (Smith has).””

    The ‘bigger, stronger, faster’ argument

    The report suggests that males are often bigger, stronger and faster athletes than females and tend to be substituted for strenuous training and optimal nutrition in helping female athletes improve.

    It also pointed out that male varsity athletes don’t have bigger, stronger, faster professional players to practice against.

    Njonkou, however, supports the men’s presence because it helps her to go against players who are hard to guard.

    “”It helps me with quickness,”” she said. “”When I get to guard someone who’s faster, I get to work on my quickness, and also it helps me get strong. When I’m trying to guard someone who is 240 pounds, I have to work on my strength.””

    Building or hurting team morale?

    The report says teammates scrimmaging together in practice has been “”an accepted part of sport since its inception,”” and that team building does not happen when bench players are spectators during practice.

    But some Wildcats think the practice players have a positive effect on team building for a different reason: These men have become like a part of the team.

    “”We even hang out with them off the court also, a couple of them,”” Hollingsworth said.

    On a UA women’s basketball squad with strong camaraderie, the men fit in like a group of brothers. Njonkou got a sense of this closeness this season working out in the weight room after not seeing one of the guys for a couple days.

    “”He said, ‘Oh, Amina, I miss you so much,'”” Njonkou said. “”That’s like a family thing.””

    What happens next

    There’s no clear consensus now, with talks still ongoing, according to a December NCAA press release.

    Nothing will be resolved within the next year, according to Jennifer Kearns, NCAA assistant director of public and media relations, who added the soonest any vote could take place would be at the NCAA’s January 2008 convention.

    If that vote takes place, Bonvicini, the Pacific 10 Conference captain to the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, hopes the practice players remain eligible to work with her squad.

    “”They’ve been absolutely wonderful,”” she said. “”Some people feel like they’re taking away opportunities for women in practice. I think it depends on how each coach does it.””

    As the NCAA debates what to do with men’s practice players, Bonvicini hopes it considers that more women get hurt than men in basketball.

    Last season, for example, Bonvicini’s squad was down to six healthy scholarship players at one point, making 5-on-5 scrimmages pretty difficult.

    While the CWA report argues for fairness for female athletes, Bonvicini has a simple reason for maintaining the status quo and keeping the men eligible to practice with her squad.

    “”We wouldn’t have gotten through last year without our male practice players,”” she said.

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