Column: Food Is The New Recruiting ToolNovember 4, 2015

Column: Food Is The New Recruiting ToolMost U.S. households would be aghast if their food budget increased 145% in one year. But that’s exactly what happened at a number of colleges this year after the NCAA lifted restrictions on feeding student-athletes.

The restrictions, which limited meals to one training table per day, were implemented in 1991 in an effort to preserve competitive balance among schools. Of course, competitive balance was then, as it is now, a sham. Institutions with athletic budgets of $30 million or less compete against behemoths like the University of Texas with an annual budget of $165 million. Limiting the food expense was either a way to hold down expenses or an opportunity for schools to divert money to other uses, for example, coaches’ salaries. In the latest USA Today salary survey of football coaches, the top 35 earn $3 million or more per year.

According to an August survey conducted by the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association (CPSDA) the average major college program spent $534,000 to feed its athletes in 2013-14. But a year later, after the NCAA lifted restrictions on food spending, those same institutions spent an average of $1.3 million feeding their athletes. Part of the increase can be attributed to the fact that schools are feeding more athletes. When the previous restrictions were in place, NCAA Division I programs were feeding an average of 368 athletes per school. Last year, the average increased to 569 per school.

Whether removing the restrictions, Title IX concerns, or old fashion common sense should be credited for increasing the food budget is irrelevant to Shabazz Napier. The former Connecticut point guard told reporters during the 2014 Final Four that he often went to bed hungry. That comment may have been the worst sound bite imaginable for a billion dollar industry. Shortly thereafter, the NCAA adopted new feeding rules which led to increased food budgets at institutions large and small. Instead of coaching salaries, stadiums or training facilities, this arms race centers on something more closely tied to athlete performance: food.

In fairness to the NCAA, changes in feeding regulations were on the horizon two years before Napier’s comments generated universal outrage. They had been under discussion since June, 2012 when the NCAA asked Amy Freel, Director of Sports Nutrition at Indiana University, to join the Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports. Four months later, the CPSDA issued its first position statement titled “Recommended feeding protocol for all athletes.” The statement included this recommendation: “Fuel athletes throughout the day with healthy whole foods to ensure adequate energy availability, speed recovery, restore energy and repair muscle damage after exercise.”

Unfortunately, the glacial pace of NCAA reform prevented the CPSDA’s recommendations from being adopted until after Shabazz’ comments 18 months later. But once the feeding restrictions were removed, the food floodgates were flung wide open. The University of Mississippi went from catered meals from local restaurants, at a cost of $500,000 per year, to elaborate spreads at a new cafeteria called “Grill at 1810,” at an estimated annual cost of $1.5 million. Ohio State, which used to have one dietitian on staff, now has a staff of four Registered Dietitians to serve its athletes. In anticipation of new rules, Auburn broke ground on a new $6.6 million Wellness Kitchen in the fall of 2013. The cafeteria, which opened in 2014, is accessible to the entire campus community but clearly athletes were the prime motivation behind the facility’s expansive - and healthy – offerings.

The new rules are a recruiting bonanza for coaches – what mother doesn’t want her son or daughter to be properly fed? - and a nightmare for administrators who are responsible for covering the additional costs. University of Nevada-Las Vegas AD Tina Kunzer-Murphy seemed amazed when presented with the results of the CPSDA survey. Although her school has plans to provide better nutritional facilities for athletes, a 145% increase in cost is out of the question, she said. For the record, UNLV pays football coach Tony Sanchez “only” $500,000 annually, with an additional $350,000 in incentives.

The long-overdue feeding regulations will further exacerbate the gulf between the haves and the have nots. But it’s one arms race that is guaranteed to benefit those who contribute the most to college athletics: the student-athletes.