Male practice players cherish, grow from opportunity

Originally Published: December 1, 2006
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

The NCAA committee on women's athletics has put out a "position statement" calling for a ban on male practice players. And in the past week or so, that has gotten a fair amount of media and fan attention.

Male Practice Players
Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty ImagesMen like Boston College student Joshua Fan practice with women's teams around the country.

I wrote (ranted) last week about how much I disagree with this recommendation, because men's players have helped raise the level of the women's game; they do not take away "opportunities" in practice but rather help all the players get better reps, and it's beneficial to the men who serve as practice players.

It's that last part I want to focus on with this column. Maybe it seems like that's not all that important, but I happen to think it's an extremely big deal. Obviously, the primary goal of collegiate women's sports is providing competitive athletic outlets for females. But it's also about working toward an overall atmosphere of not just acceptance but appreciation for women's athletics.

Appreciating women as athletes is an element of the bigger picture of appreciating women as multifaceted human beings. That remains one of the most important objectives in the journey of the human race.

Athletics, going back to their earliest origins, were long seen as male turf by whatever form of society was in place. Certainly, there are still several places on our planet where that is still the case.

The message during the evolution of women's sports -- especially from the late 20th century on -- is not, "Hey, we're here to take some of your turf away." No, no, no, no, no. It's this: "Hey, there is more than enough turf for everyone 10 times over. Let's all enjoy it."

At the root of everything from the vehement dislike of women's sports by some men (even hatred, frankly) to the derision directed at women's sports by a great many others is -- deep down -- this fear of losing turf. That for women to gain, men must necessarily lose.

Except … it means nothing of the kind. And if you listen to some of the thoughts of male practice players, you realize they've figured that out, along with so many other things.

I've received e-mails in recent days from men's practice players -- some still in college, some graduated -- from every region of our country: North, South, East, West, Midwest. Some of them were in the midst of finals week yet still took time to write. And none of them, actually, just dropped a line or two. Every one really had something substantial to say.

I asked some of them if it would be OK to share their thoughts in this column and use their names and schools. There are some others I haven't had a chance to respond to yet, but suffice to say their messages are quite similar to the ones you'll read here.

Shane Sentor was a former practice player at Evansville. He wrote: "I know that it thoroughly enhanced my college experience and allowed me to appreciate women's athletics so much more than I had before.

"I can't even begin to understand the logic or rationality behind this suggestion to ban men's practice players. This goes against everything the NCAA is supposed to stand for, which is to help out the student-athlete during their college experience."

Exactly. If men can get a great experience helping contribute to the success of a women's program, isn't that a shining example of the best of what college athletics can achieve?

Kirk Henderson was a practice player for Pepperdine from 2003-2006 and can speak to the times when the Waves really did not have enough healthy women to have a productive practice. Because of guys like Kirk, though, the team had what it needed to be fully prepared for its games.

Kirk wrote: "Julie Rousseau, the current coach, was probably one of the most influential women in my life, even though we only spent short periods of time together over a two-year period (for example the subtle, yet important distinction when referring to the players as women and not girls).

"The leadership and faith she showed during her inaugural season was inspiring. I grew to respect her and her staff's hard work, love for the game, and genuine love for the players.

"Because of my opportunity to practice with the young women on the team, I grew to respect the women's game as a whole and greatly admire the dedication and effort that it takes to be a collegiate athlete. As a younger man, I had my hoop dreams for college. After practicing against these women for three years, I knew I made the right call in hanging up my shoes. I find it shameful that the NCAA would take away such an opportunity [not only] for the players, but also for the men who help. I truly feel it made me a better person."

Danny Robertson is currently a practice player at Valparaiso, and he acknowledged he has worked hard to get back into shape for the season, just as the players have. If you talk to any practice player, you'll find how seriously he takes the responsibility of being in shape and prepared for what he needs to do.

Danny wrote: "When I go to practice (about twice a week usually), it is not my goal to show anyone up or to try to do what I do best. Rather, it's to learn the opposition's plays and players, so our players do not have to take the time and energy to do so … they already have enough on their plates with school and sports.

"It is something that has become very dear to me, and I look forward to it every day. I feel that I have become a part of the program, and I take a lot of pride in seeing the team able to defend plays and players that I played in practice and to beat the defenses that I tried to stop them with."

If you've never seen a women's practice with men's players, I think you'd be impressed with how well -- and consistently -- the men check their egos at the door. They do not patronize the women by "going easy" on them; they play very hard. But as Danny said, they aren't there to show off. They're there to do their job.

Most acknowledge when they first start, though, they are -- quite naturally -- worried about potentially hurting the women or offending them.

Micah Lewis-Kraus, a 2005 Stanford grad, was a practice player and manager for the Cardinal women's team for three years. He addressed that introduction period.

"My favorite times on the court were when some new practice players would show up, thinking they had to go lightly, and an hour later they walked off the court in a daze, having given up 6, maybe 7, 3s in a row, losing by 20, 30 points. It was awesome.

"[The women] commanded my respect with their heart, their love of the game … they took charges, threw the occasional elbow, were more vocal than most guys on my high school team. I spent three years in awe. They showed me a lot about how women should be treated (not just on the court). They whipped me into shape in more ways than one."

If you're wondering if the guys ever get crushes on the players or even fall in love with them … well, of course, they sometimes do. And, yes, dealing with those feelings can help them through the rest of their lives, too.

Brian Russell was a practice player at Limestone College, a Division II school in South Carolina. He talked about how he learned a ton about basketball … but also about how to better resolve conflicts with women: "I learned how to box out and how to break down a full-court press. I learned more about the game of basketball in those three years than I did in the previous 19. So not only was I trying to help the women's players, they were teaching me."

Does it get rough sometimes in practice? Of course. That's basketball, men's or women's. But here's what Brian learned from that:

"We male players learned to control our voices, control our anger and control our attitude -- but it went further than the gym floor. It affected the way we treat females in general. Don't get me wrong, it's not like we were saying, 'Don't worry about that elbow, my nose will be fine,' but we learned to express our frustration in a different way, a more cordial and civilized way.

"Now tell me this doesn't help males in the future when they're married? Look, I'm not saying having male practice players will be the end all of all divorces in this country. I'm just saying what we learned on the court ventured further away from the gym than one may think."

Consider, also, that the women's game is constantly asking what can be done to draw more fans. Here's something: Keep cultivating advocates such as David Ray, a practice player at Minnesota.

David wrote: "I love playing against these phenomenal student-athletes. I love the relationships I have developed with the players, managers and coaches.

"I feel apart of the team, and I'm honored to step onto the same floor with these basketball players. I get upset at the disrespect they receive from lack of coverage by the media and people's ignorance. They are strong, brilliant, independent women who are true role models."

Finally, there is the important concept that there's enough glory for everyone, male and female, and that it's just so much fun watching anyone do something that he or she is really good at.

I was at the women's volleyball Final Four in Omaha, Neb., this past weekend, and it was a blast to see Nebraska star Sarah Pavan put down one of those cannon kills that you think might split the floor, and then look into the stands at the Qwest Center and see people of all ages and both genders screaming and high-fiving.

Celebrating success is something that both Scott Murphy and Matt Kaufman got to do as practice players for Maryland's women's team last season. Both wrote me independent of the other. Scott is still in school and practicing with the team. Matt graduated and recently returned for the national championship banner-raising ceremony.

Matt wrote: "I learned more about responsibility, teamwork, friendship, hard work, and what it takes to be a winner through my experience with the team than I have anywhere else in my life.

"We found ourselves studying, scouting and talking about opposing teams outside of practice. I now watch women's basketball whenever it is televised, even when my alma mater isn't playing. I made what I believe are lifelong connections with my fellow practice-team players, along with the young women on the team."

And Scott's message provided perhaps the best visual of any for me.

He wrote: "I was at the championship game in Boston last year and after Maryland won, [guard] Shay Doron pointed out myself and two other players in the crowd and got us onto the floor to celebrate with the team. It is hard to put into words how much that meant. Needless to say, some of my best memories in college will almost certainly revolve around women's basketball."

Now, can anyone truly believe the best thing for women's basketball is to ban guys such as Shane, Kirk, Danny, Micah, Brian, David, Matt and Scott? Does that really make any sense?

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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