In Taste of Autonomy, Sports Programs Now Battle for Athletes' Bellies

Michael Henninger/For The Chronicle

At the U. of Pittsburgh, all athletics facilities now have 24-hour nutritional stations offering “heavy continental breakfast” foods, and the weight rooms have smoothie stations. The football team's “training table” meals are made by the same cooking staff that serves the Pittsburgh Steelers. Above, Zach Challingsworth, a freshman wide receiver, gets lunch from a buffet at the Panthers' South Side complex.
October 15, 2014

The front lines in college sports’ new age of autonomy aren’t on any football field or basketball court, but smack dab in the middle of an everything bagel.

New rules approved by the National Collegiate Athletic Association in the spring lift the limits on what colleges can give their athletes, free of charge, in the way of snacks. The seemingly modest deregulation targeted one of the association’s most laughable delineations—that a free bagel was all right but a bagel with cream cheese was a violation—and was also aimed at bolstering athletes’ nutrition.

But the rule change also represents a testing site in deregulation as the NCAA permits colleges to offer more benefits to their scholarship athletes. And the way programs have responded, with some doling out $1-million or more of additional food every year, demonstrates that even an extra banana here or there represents one piece of ammunition in a growing arms race.

"People have clamored for deregulation," said Gene A. Marsh, who advises colleges on NCAA-compliance issues. "But then deregulation causes a lot of people to get really unnerved because when there are no absolute rules, then along with that comes a certain freedom. And then along with the freedom comes a certain competition that may or may not have existed before."

‘Heavy Continental Breakfast’

The NCAA voted on the rule change on April 15. Days earlier, the basketball star Shabazz Napier, then at the University of Connecticut, made headlines when he said he sometimes went to bed hungry. The new regulations essentially guarantee that all athletes—even walk-ons—can benefit from unlimited snack food on the university’s dime.

In response, some colleges are embracing a grab-and-go approach. At the University of Pittsburgh, the athletics department has responded with 24-hour "nutritional stations" in all of its athletics facilities. The offerings? "Heavy continental breakfast," said Dan Bartholomae, the university’s executive associate athletic director for compliance and administration. Among other things, that includes whole fruits, granola, and, you guessed it, bagels with spreads. The program has also installed new smoothie stations in its weight rooms.

Those offerings come on top of training tables—essentially, an in-house dining hall where the football team eats meals made by the same cooking staff that serves the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Other institutions looked into more-mobile food options. In August the University of Oklahoma announced that it would buy a food truck to feed its athletes. But, wary of the sunk cost a truck would represent, the university has since put that plan on hold, said Nicki Moore, senior associate athletic director. The university, she said, has budgeted an extra $1.2-million for food for athletes this year, which averages out to roughly $50 extra per athlete per week—walk-ons included.

‘Food Wars’

Athletics officials acknowledged the effect that the influx of food could have on recruiting, spurring a kind of "food wars" among programs that can afford it. For instance, departments are likely to be hyperattentive to what the college down the road is offering by way of food.

"I’m certain that that is happening," said Chad Hawley, the Big Ten Conference’s associate commissioner for compliance, "because it happens in every facet of any competitive enterprise."

But Christian Spears, deputy director of athletics at Eastern Michigan University, played down the importance of food in recruits’ college choices. "There’s so many differences [between programs] that I think the meal one isn’t as competitive as coaches may want us to make it," he said.

Big increases in spending, at least in larger programs, is a broader feature of the new age of autonomy in college sports. The NCAA voted in August to grant the five major athletics conferences the authority to make rules and regulations more in line with their philosophies. In coming years, the wealthiest programs are expected to spend more on scholarships and health benefits for players, among other things.

Those have been the most visible steps amid a flurry of new proposals meant to respond to concerns that athletes aren’t being appropriately compensated. Mr. Spears said unlimited snacks would have an effect to that end.

"This will eliminate some of the potential angst that’s out there in terms of, What’s in it for the student athlete?" Mr. Spears said.

What the Joneses Are Eating

While athletics officials extoll the new ability to ensure their players are well fed, they don’t deny that "keeping up with the Joneses" plays a role in the new expense. "You never know if this translates into wins and losses," but it doesn’t hurt, Mr. Bartholomae said.

That freedom can translate into dual anxieties: first, concern over whether a college’s food plan is in compliance with the open-ended rules. For example, one athletic director expressed concern that some colleges allow players to "double dip," pocketing money that was set aside for off-campus food expenses while enrolled in an on-campus meal plan.

"What I’ve told people," said Mr. Hawley, of the Big Ten offices, "is if you’re abusive of what the rule is there for, then that’s just inviting regulation."

The second anxiety also stems from the enhanced freedom. Having been conditioned for so long to keep an eye on compliance, athletics departments in a more autonomous landscape will instead be forced to look to what their competitors may be offering players, and adjust their own budgets accordingly.

"It is funny," Mr. Marsh said. Deregulation "causes a certain mind-set of people to get very anxious about it. Because now they have to worry about keeping up with the Joneses that are real—or the rumored Joneses."

In that way, colleges’ rush to set up food stands and food trucks may demonstrate the baby steps of autonomy.

"In many contexts now, you’re not gonna have to go run to the Vatican, you know, in Indianapolis, and ask for permission," Mr. Marsh said. "Because, in all likelihood, you’re not gonna get an answer."

Brad Wolverton contributed to this article.

Correction (10/15/2014, 6:12 p.m.): This article originally misstated the affiliation of Christian Spears. He is deputy director of athletics at Eastern Michigan University, not Northern Illinois University. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.