The one place women aren’t allowed in the WNBA? Practice teams

WNBA player Sylvia Fowles of the Minnesota Lynx plays against male practice players during a practice session in 2019
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Right now – as a result of COVID-19 protocols – WNBA teams are going without male practice players for a second straight season.

In their absence, coaches are rethinking how to structure practices so as to not wear down their players.

“[Practice players] allow us to manage our bodies well,” Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve said. “When you watch practice now – when you’re in a five-on-five situation – [every player] is probably on the court the whole time.”

If you’re a fan of the WNBA, you’ve probably heard about the league’s male practice players before. And while it’s true that WNBA teams depend on their practice players, there is also some deeply ingrained sexism built into the way this narrative has been told in the past.

“People think that… because we practice against guys, that somehow improves us. Just because they’re guys,” Reeve explained. “But right now, we’re prohibited from having female practice players.”

That’s right. In the WNBA, women aren’t allowed to be practice players.

“It’s kind of a weird rule,” Phoenix Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said.

‘Loophole’ might be a better term. The collective bargaining agreements for both the NBA and WNBA don’t allow non-contract players to practice with teams.

“You start to get into what the league feels would be circumventing roster numbers,” Reeve explained.

But male practice players? No one is going to argue that they are future WNBA prospects.

Part of the reason WNBA teams rely on practice players is due to roster limits. While NBA rosters can include 17 players (15 active players plus 2 two-way players), WNBA rosters are capped at 12.

And while concern about exploiting potential WNBA prospects is legitimate, is it realistic?

“Sometimes I think we get caught up in some – to be honest – really ridiculous rules that won’t pan out anyway,” four-time WNBA champ and Players’ Association vice president Sue Bird said. “And what happens is that you end up denying people opportunities.”

Even if the CBA changed to allow women practice players, that doesn’t necessarily mean coaches would shake up their practice rosters.

“I’d rather have the guys because they can challenge the ladies more,” Las Vegas Aces coach Bill Laimbeer said. “Most of the good women are already on the basketball team.”

Brondello is more open. “The standard of our league is amazing so there’s going to be some [women] players you can bring in and be good practice players,” she said. “If there’s a player that’s really good and she’s not going to make our team, but can help us prepare for a season – why couldn’t it be a female?”

Bird, who is entering her 20th season with the Seattle Storm, feels similarly. “If a player is good enough to be a practice player, they’re probably in the league… But, if [a situation] did present itself where there’s [a player] who sadly didn’t make a WNBA roster, but is training to go overseas and wants to just play basketball, I don’t see why that’s an issue.”

As for Reeve?

“In terms of the things we like to do – and scout – [the guys] don’t know very much,” she said. “We have to spend quite a bit of time molding them into the scout team that we want them to be – and letting them know that it’s not a tryout for the Timberwolves or any other team.

“My preference would be to have women that are practice players.”

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