The Missouri women’s basketball players spend a good deal of time playing against one another during practices. But sometimes, there is no good substitute for playing a true opponent.
So that’s why the Tigers use a scout team, or a practice squad, which has learned the offenses and defenses of upcoming opponents.
But there’s one hitch in the plan: The scout team is made of male players, and the NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics recommended in December that male practice players be eliminated from all women’s sports.
Missouri coach Cindy Stein and her players see the recommendation as a step in the wrong direction.
“I think it’s done completely out of ignorance,” Stein said. “So it’s very frustrating from a coaching standpoint. I don’t know anybody coaching-wise or player-wise that doesn’t like it (male practice squads). The players that tend not to like it are the players that don’t usually play because they want the repetitions.”
The NCAA committee says the use of male practice squads causes more long-term harm than good and discriminates against other female athletes. In some cases, the committee says, schools recruit male players to practice against female athletes, thereby disregarding viable female substitutes both on the college roster and off.
Most importantly, according to the committee, male practice squads hinder gender equity and Title IX, part of a set of educational amendments made in 1972 banning sex discrimination in schools.
“I’m all for gender equity and females getting the same opportunity, but this is a different opportunity,” Stein said.
NCAA Division III is the only division considering legislation regarding the matter, and at its upcoming convention will look at proposals which would not eliminate male practice players entirely, but reduce numbers of male practice players and times available for use. Divisions I and II are still gathering information with no timetable for action in sight.
Stein said the Tigers’ practice squad, comprised of about five college-aged males, comes in a day or two before a game when they are available to run plays with the team. She said the practice squad eliminates the need for her team to spend valuable time learning an opponent’s plays when it needs to focus on its own.
“We have 28 opponents and that’s 28 different offenses and defenses and you expect your kids to know yours inside and out,” Stein said. “To have five of her players devoted to learning the plays of the other team simply isn’t fair.”
The committee argues that by using the subs on the bench to play against the starters in practice, which also is not unusual for the Tigers, the entire team benefits, rather than just the top-tier players. Stein said that all players, regardless of starting potential, see repetitions with the practice squad.
“It’s not that our other kids don’t work hard, but there’s some kids that are just better than others, and you have got to find people that are better than them and then they get better,” Stein said. “That’s the main emphasis.”
Senior guard Tiffany Brooks said if male practice squads were eliminated, the team would suffer, not grow stronger.
“I think it would have a big impact just from the standpoint that the guys are a lot stronger and a lot quicker and that’s what we’re going to be facing,” Brooks said. “A lot of times, our subs don’t have that. They don’t bring that intensity.”
Practice squad members for the Tigers have been high school basketball players, former players who just want to stay in shape, men interested in coaching and even good female athletes, but Stein said it is rare to find a female who is capable of playing on a level with the Tigers. Senior center EeTisha Riddle agreed.
“Regular girls can’t play with us,” Riddle said. “If they could, they’d be on the team.”
Stein, who played for Illinois in the early 1980s, knows personally the value of playing against someone of a higher caliber.
“I grew up with two brothers, that’s how I learned to play,” she said. “So I very rarely played pick-up, out on the outdoor courts, with females. I mean, a few of them, but we always tried to find guys to play against. Always, always, always.”
Getting the Tigers to play at a higher level requires a challenge, Stein said, and she is going to do whatever it takes to give her team that challenge and get it to that higher level.
“We are put in this position to win ball games and you want to put your program in the best light and the best situation to win ball games,” Stein said, “and you want your players to learn and you want all your players to know your stuff.”