Last week's NY Times had an article centered around a practice known to most observers of women's sports, that some women's teams practice against or with men, often ex-high school athletes who could not quite make the college men's team. But apparently some college conferences, and eventually the NCAA, may bar women's teams from this practice of using men either because it is regarded as somehow demeaning for women or, more concretely perhaps, because of the likelihood that college women's teams would then need fewer women. Indeed, some schools are not using the full complement of scholarships, and some have teams with rosters smaller than those allowed by the governing rules of the sport. But is there really a Title IX or other problem?
Unused scholarships cannot be the problem on their own. Title IX requires that schools spend proportionally the same (on scholarships, not facilities on coaches' salaries) on men and women based on their enrollments. If a college has a 50-50 male-female ratio in the studrnt population, then it must spend as much for athletic scholarships for women as it does for men, though it can spread these resources over fewer athletes of one sex or the other. Half-scholarships are quite common in some sports and at some schools. As for non-scholarship expenditures, equipment and faciltiies are judged by their overall "quality," so that a $100 million football stadium need not be matched by $100 million spent on women's sports, though the women gymnasts' locker room had better be awfully nice. But scholarships are more easily compared by actual cost and so that is how it is done. If a school has but 13 rather than 15 women on its basketball team, say, then any unused scholarship money is presumably going to other sports, or is concentrated on fewer athletes, with full rather than partial scholarships, as is permitted. Nothing stops the school from taking walk-ons or unsupported athletes onto its team, but presumably it thinks their time is wasted or, perhaps, that team morale suffers when there are teammates who never play and who are not even on the same court as the starters during practice sessions.
My colleague Adam Samaha suggests that if the coach thinks that practicing against men is good for the team's development, then an argument can be made that this strategy must be allowed in order to permit the women to develop their potential as much as possible in preparation for careers in the WNBA, for instance. This argument might be used against one favoring a ban on male practice partners on arms race grounds. I can imagine a conference thinking that teams will improve by practicing against men, much as the men might improve by practicing against imported professionals, but that the schools are better off limiting competition in order to avoid an arms race. Of course on this ground, the men's teams might be barred from practicing with professionals (as I believe they are) but women may be permitted to do so.
The argument can go too far, and it may prove too much. Women might say that they ought to have a right (not just permission) to practice with and against the men's team in basketball, soccer, and perhaps even in football, say. The argument would be that if practicing with better athletes is the route to improvement, then women will be better players and have better career opportunities if they are encouraged in this manner. Much as Title IX would not allow a college to take its best coaches and always assign them to the men, why should it take its best practice partners and assign them only to men? The argument seems logical but slightly absurd. It suggests that at least one of the arguments in favor of a right to have men at women's practice sessions will not hold up.