An NCAA committee shows that efforts in the name of gender equity can go too far

Back in the early 1970s, my high school alma mater started a girls' softball team, one of the first schools to do so in the Los Angeles area. My twin sisters, Justine and Janine, played softball and loved the opportunity to compete. But one year, just before the start of the season, the team's coach died suddenly, and the school's response was to cancel the season because, as one administrator put it, "It's only girls."

This is actually one of the tamer tales that can be told of the pre-Title IX days, an era when men were men and women were cheerleaders. A lot has changed in the past 30 years, almost all of it for the better. There will be the occasional head-scratching moment (the UA starting a women's water polo team--a sport that virtually no one in Arizona plays--just to meet some nebulous guidelines), but for the most part, it has served to make America a better, fairer place by providing opportunities to girls and women that had long been denied them.

However, there is that old truism that when zealots form a firing squad, they assemble in a circle. And the latest such band of zealots, unfortunately, is a panel of kooks inside the NCAA. The Committee on Women's Athletics has come up with an idea so narrow-minded, so crackpot, so PC, that every time I read the report, I hear Marvin Gaye singing, "Makes me wanna holler, throw up both my hands ..."

The committee wants to ban the common practice of having college women's basketball teams practice against men. Apparently, this tactic, which is used by virtually every top basketball program in the country, "violates the spirit of gender equity."

It is a fact in sports that an athlete improves by competing against better athletes. In order to compete successfully against superior athletes, one must eliminate sloppy habits and must work toward developing an economy of motion and sharper on-court instincts. This is what is going on in women's college basketball (including at the UA), and it is elevating the level of play across the country.

Back in the Dark Ages, just about any discussion of women's sports would prompt some Jethro to spout, "Yeah, but they're not as good as men." This, of course, is both true and completely irrelevant. The best male basketball player is going to be better than the best female basketball player, and so on down the line. That's probably always going to be true, but the margin sure ain't what it used to be.

Nevertheless, sexist clods used to use that as some sort of argument against the growth of women's sports. Back in the 1990s, I played on a men's basketball team with three other Caucasians and an erudite, somewhat-haughty African-American gentleman whom I nicknamed Skippy. (He was the real-life forerunner to the snooty, Harvard-educated black characters they have on TV sitcoms these days.) We called our team Four-and-a-Half White Guys.

After a couple of seasons, we added Margie Torres, who, through no fault of her own, was (and remains) a Hispanic female. Margie, who couldn't guard a chair with a freakin' gun, was an offensive monster, able to bust threes with the best of them. I was disappointed, to say the least, at the reception she often received from opponents. One older guy refused to play. Some guys would ignore her on the court, while others would go out of their way to play rough against her.

I'm happy to report that, in just a few years, those attitudes have all but disappeared. A ballplayer is a ballplayer, deserving of and receiving respect from his/her opponent.

And now comes this. While most men have thrown off the shackles of their counterproductive views on gender, women on the inside are trying to limit their young sisters' progress by taking things to an extreme that virtually no one in the sport wants.

In fact, response has been swift and unsparing. Hall of Fame coach Pat Summitt of Tennessee said that practicing against men maximizes her team's improvement and helps everyone on her squad get better. She said that if it weren't for the men, the bottom five players on her squad would be relegated to duty as a "permanent practice squad." She then added that when she coached the Gold Medal-winning U.S. Olympic team back in 1984, they almost always scrimmaged against men. "The guys made us better."

UA women's assistant coach Todd Holthaus thinks it's "not a good idea."

Michigan State coach Joanne McCallie put it more strongly. "Absolutely absurd. This has nothing to do with equity and everything to do with politics."

Blake Masters, who played prep basketball locally at Green Fields Country Day School (where I coach the girls' basketball team) and has served as a practice player for the nationally ranked Stanford women's team, bristles at the committee's recommendation. "Somebody like me, who probably isn't good enough to play D-1 men's basketball, I get to keep playing against good competition; the women's team gets better; I get to know the players and coaches on the team; and we all feel like we're a part of something special. Where's the downside of that?"

That's the problem with zealots; they can always find a downside.