Tony Romo has been one of the biggest surprises of the NFL season.
Since replacing Drew Bledsoe as the starting quarterback for "America's Team," Romo won five of his first six starts and has helped guide the Dallas Cowboys to a playoff spot and first place in the NFC East.
Not bad for an undrafted free agent. And not bad for a guy who was a male practice player for one of my teams just two years ago.
Romo is just one of several well-known male athletes who have stepped foot on the court with me or one of my teams over the years. And right now, after the NCAA's Committee on Women's Athletics last week proposed a ban on the use of male practice players in women's intercollegiate athletics, there might not be a hotter topic in sports.
To me, however, this subject shouldn't even be up for debate. Male practice players have become a vital part of women's basketball, and taking them away from women's hoops would be like removing tackling dummies from the football field. To be able to compete against stronger and often faster men in practice has only made my players -- and me during my own playing days -- better on the court. The thought of losing that advantage is simply a crazy idea.
According to the CWA's statement, "any inclusion of male practice players results in diminished participation opportunities for female student-athletes, contrary to the association's principles of gender equity, nondiscrimination, competitive equity and student-athlete well-being."
According to one source who wanted to remain anonymous, a group of senior women administrators across the country is spearheading the proposal, although at least one coach of a top-15 team is believed to be both a proponent of the initiative and the one lobbying for the group's support. Though the CWA also says male practice players violate Title IX -- something we'll get to in a minute -- the group's main concern, says this source, is that players in the bottom quarter of women's rosters are getting robbed of their chance to develop because their reps in practice are going to male practice players.
That's a ridiculous notion. On the contrary, competing against men in practice is a great tool to help all women -- from starters to the last player off the bench -- improve their games. Because male practice players are often bigger and sometimes faster, a female player competing with them is forced to fine-tune her game and better understand how to play it. For instance, she's going to have to create separation and space a little better against a larger, faster man, and develop her pump fakes and understanding of angles.
I've seen the benefits up close, obviously as a coach but first as a player. I practiced against male opponents whenever possible, and my game certainly improved after spending two years in the men's United States Basketball League.
Still, my biggest issue is that the CWA thinks it needs to regulate coaches. Basketball coaches should not be told whether their players are getting enough playing time or when their players need a drink of water. Today's coaches are very capable of determining whether the 10th, 11th or 12th (and so on) players on their roster are developing. No committee has the right to tell them how to coach or how much a kid should play in practice. We've come too far in the development of our game to give somebody on the outside jurisdiction over a coach's practice.
As for the CWA's thinking that the use of male practice players "violates the spirit of gender equity and Title IX," I just don't see how having men in practice hurts women. The men are not stealing our scholarships. They're not in the scorebook. Instead, these are guys who give up their time and get nothing for it. There is no compensation, unless you count their bruises. Male practice players simply help women play harder, help us achieve a higher standard and help prepare us for a higher level of enjoyable competition. I mean, come on, what's next? Will the CWA tell me male coaches are violating Title IX?
Believe me, I think there are a lot of fish to fry in terms of winning equality for women in America, but this is not one of them. Let's worry about making 100 percent on the dollar compared to men's salaries. That's a battle I fight for. But this is not.
The use of male practice players, in my book, is a win-win, and not just from the women's perspective. The men who have participated in my practices -- a group that includes Romo, Rick Mahorn, Michael Irvin, Jerry Stackhouse, Grant Hill and Quincy Carter -- use that time to help them stay fit. For example, Romo (who has great skills, by the way) played against Anna DeForge every day in practice for three months from January to March in 2005. And it wasn't long before he was sitting in the stands during games to support us.
Former NFL cornerback and major league baseball outfielder Deion Sanders also walked away from my practices with a deeper appreciation for female athletes. He routinely stepped in during practice while serving as an assistant to our NWBL Dallas Fury team in 2004.
"It kept me in shape and gave me a true appreciation for women's basketball," Sanders said. "It was phenomenal to see Sheryl Swoopes compete on a day-to-day basis. It's just like football, and she knows angles.
"My dribbling game had to be on or they were going to whip me. And when it was time for them to play against other women, they were truly prepared."
Sanders also thinks removing male practice players is a step in the wrong direction.
"Unfortunately in this country, women are compared to men, but women also hold themselves to competitive standards," he said. "So whenever there's an opportunity to compete against the men, not only on the court but in the board room, it's a luxury, it's a measuring stick. Anything that can provide true competition, a true challenge is a good thing."
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.