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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Michele Norris.

It's March. There's a hint of spring and more than a hint of madness in the air. College basketball conference tournaments are now in full swing. In a few days the fields for the women's and men's NCAA tournaments will be selected. Much of what it takes to put together a top team happens on the practice court. Many women's teams play against male practice squads to sharpen their game. But a committee of the NCAA wants to put a stop to that.

Phyllis Fletcher has our story.

PHYLLIS FLETCHER: If you talk to women who are serious athletes, you hear a lot of stories about playing with guys. Let's go back in time to the playground with Maggie O'Hara.

MAGGIE O: At recess, when I was in elementary school, third, fourth, fifth, sixth grade, we always played against the boys. And there was a group of us girls that were pretty athletic and so it was fun to play against the boys, because we could compete with them.

FLETCHER: The six-foot-three senior plays center and forward for the University of Washington Huskies. O'Hara played on a co-ed team in high school, so it wasn't any big deal for her to get to college and have a guy like Vesna Sophan to practice with.

He was a standout in high school, but a knee injury has kept him in intramurals here at U-Dub. It was different for him to play against O'Hara and her teammates because when did he ever play with girls before?

VESNA SOPHAN: Never.

FLETCHER: He says he didn't even like to watch women's basketball until he became a practice player for the Huskies.

SOPHAN: When I actually got involved and watched the first game here, I was just like wow, you know, the speed of the game was a lot faster than it was in high school, so I was, like, okay.

(SOUNDBITE OF A BASKETBALL PRACTICE)

FLETCHER: Sophan works out with the team three days a week along with a few other guys. In return, he gets gear, shirts and shoes to play in, and he gets to go to the games. He says it's a fair trade. And O'Hara says practicing with him and the other guys helps her hone her game.

HARA: Being guys, they're bigger, faster and stronger than we are. And that's not a sexist remark, that's just a fact that they are. And so if we can prepare for them, we have a good chance of being able to be prepared for the team that we play.

FLETCHER: Some would argue O'Hara is the kind of player who would actually benefit if guys like Sophan weren't part of practice. O'Hara has been a reserve player. Starters usually get the most time on court, and some coaches believe that having male practice teams sends a bad message to women athletes.

LESLE GALLIMORE: You know, my initial reaction is just that it's not the right path to go down.

FLETCHER: Lesle Gallimore coaches women's soccer at the University of Washington. She's a bit of a stickler for NCAA rules. Her message on her answering machine makes that pretty clear.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANSWERING MACHINE)

GALLIMORE: If you are a high school junior or the parent of a high school junior or younger, please know that I cannot return your call.

FLETCHER: Because it would break the rules. When it comes to recruiting and practice, Gallimore says coaches will do just about anything that's not banned outright in the NCAA rulebook. Then other coaches feel like they have to do it. Gallimore doesn't like the idea of men in her practices. She says one of her players could get hurt. It could become a hassle for her to manage. And aside from logistics, she's just against it in principle.

GALLIMORE: Title IX is there for a reason and I would hate to think that we've scratched and clawed and fought for these opportunities for young women and we've given them scholarships and we go out onto a court or a practice field and see those scholarships sitting on the sideline watching. You know, just really on the face of it, does it make a lot of sense?

FLETCHER: And if she found out tomorrow that having men in practice was banned?

GALLIMORE: I wouldn't lose any sleep at all.

FLETCHER: Husky women's basketball coach June Daugherty declined comment for this story, but UW associate athletic director Marie Tuite supports her use of male practice players.

(SOUNDBITE OF NCAA BASKETBALL GAME)

FLETCHER: Right now the Huskies are 18-12. They are hoping to land a spot in the NCAA tourney. And practice players like Vesna Sophan are part of the team.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL GAME)

FLETCHER: Even though at the games, they're more like cheerleaders.

(SOUNDBITE OF NCAA BASKETBALL GAME)

SOPHAN: Yeah, man. Whoo! Let's go!

FLETCHER: For NPR News, I'm Phyllis Fletcher in Seattle.

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