MORGANTOWN — On Tuesday, the NCAA didn’t merely budge. It relented. The governing body of college sports adopted a handful of shrewd rules that, it says, enhance the well-being of student-athletes. Chief among them is the one that will allow for all-you-can-eat conditions at your favorite athletic department.
It is long overdue, and it’s had the NCAA’s attention for months. Before UConn guard Shabazz Napier said at the Final Four he sometimes went to bed hungry because his scholarship didn’t cover enough food. Before WVU football coach Dana Holgorsen told me in July he had walk-ons and scholarship players who were starving at the end of a long day for the same reasons Napier claimed.
Now student-athletes and walk-ons are on track to have unlimited meals and snacks, provided the idea survives the override period (not guaranteed) and is approved later this month (more likely than not). Thank Napier for giving the topic attention. Thank Holgorsen for being bold enough to point out the problem. Thank their brethren who have said the same without the same spotlight.
But believe it or not, it’s wise to thank the NCAA.
“I think a lot of it is just common sense,” said WVU director of football operations Alex Hammond. “We’re asking a lot of student-athletes as it relates to workouts, practices and participation, and nutrition is something that has to be monitored at a very high level in order for these players to perform at a level we want them to. If you can feed them as much as we want to, or as much as is necessary, you’re taking better care of the players and giving them a better chance to be successful.”
It’s all very simple to understand, and it can be easily explained with examples from the WVU roster. Quinton Spain is a scholarship left guard with NFL size and potential. He needs to eat tons of calories every day, and he can do that up to three times a day with a meal plan and then once a day five days a week with the football team’s training table. Mike Calicchio is an enormous left tackle who before Saturday’s Gold-Blue Game was honored as the spring’s top walk-on player.
At the end of a fall practice, Spain can feast at the training table. Calicchio cannot.
“Let’s say the walk-on gets out of practice at 7 o’clock at night,” Hammond sad. “He gets home after a grueling workout and maybe his dining hall closes at 8. By the time he’s hungry and starving for food and ready to go, it’s 9 and he has no options.”
Well, he does have options, but not the healthiest options or the ones his coaches or the team’s full-time nutritionist would prefer. And not the ones that help the balance in his checking account.
Under the new rule that would go in affect Aug. 1, Spain and Calicchio would be treated the same and players and programs would both benefit.
So, too, would a player like Clint Trickett, the WVU quarterback who’s been on scholarship at Florida State and at WVU. Trickett lives with Celiac’s Disease, a digestive order that hampers his diet. It would behoove him as a person, never mind as a player, to find gluten-free meals offered many times a day through the football program as opposed to merely the five at the training table every week and then picking and hunting and sometimes paying for the others across town.
How players use the privileges seems clear, however it seems uncertain just how the schools will make the most of what can become quite an advantage. One of the goals and positives is how the new rule treats walk-ons, who are big parts of some of the biggest programs these days. They’re not going to have to pay for team meals, and you know players on scholarship won’t either.
That means the extra meals every day won’t diminish a player’s scholarship check, which is a monthly amount meant to cover things like rent, utilities, gas, cell phones and the occasional meal. Schools can have as many meals as they want and a scholarship check will be the same. If it were the other way around, scholarship checks would be a little lighter for every extra meal coming a scholarship player’s way.
Since that’s not the case, schools will have all sorts of ideas to make the most of what can essentially become the next arms race in recruiting. You better believe it’s going to create a disparity between the haves and the have nots, between those who can afford to give their players more and those who simply cannot.
Suddenly, the kitchen is the new weight room in recruiting, and the quality, the diversity and the sheer number of meals are the things parents will be asking about on visits and what cunning coaches will be bragging about when in the presence of a recruit.
And then people like Hammond, athletic directors, recruiting coordinators, strength coaches, nutritionists and school caterers will be looking around the region and the conference to make sure they’re keeping up with the direction and applications of the new rule. What happens in the dining room at Pitt and Maryland, at Iowa State and Texas Tech now matters at WVU.
“I think right now our early discussions are mostly about ‘What does this mean?’” Hammond said. “Is it three meals a day and a late-night snack? Is it having a breakfast and a dinner and a deli bar? What does this mean? There are a lot of questions that need to be answered as we get further into this.
“Certainly down the road I can see there being a recruiting element to it. If School A is doing something and School B is doing something else, what ends up being the most attractive?”
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymai.com/wvu. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecasazza.