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Mike Casazza: WVU’s nutrition program deals with reform, becomes recruiting tool

MORGANTOWN — The technical term she uses for the next big thing in college athletics is “deregulation of eating,” and it’s going to become a big part of what was already the big job Nettie Freshour has at West Virginia.

Freshour is the sports dietitian at WVU, a position she’s had in a full-time capacity for only about a year. For eight years before that, she was the athletic department’s nutrition consultant, the sort of person who did a lot of what she does now, though without the title, while working wonders and winning national awards as the director of WVU’s dining services.

But today, with food and nutrition meaning what it does to student-athletes who mean what they do to the fortunes of their teams and their universities, Freshour is more or less in charge of what student-athletes eat and what they know about what’s good for them. She doesn’t make sandwiches or stock the training table, but she does align offerings and educate kids about what should go in their bodies.

And that’s all about to change. Last month, the NCAA gave the green light to a handful of reform initiatives, and one was to allow unlimited meals and snacks to student athletes who are on scholarship and who walk on. In short, the regulations changed for who could eat and how much and how often they could do it.

It jumped to the forefront of most athletic departments, including WVU’s.

“We are looking at ways that we can provide our students food and nutrition that’s going to work for us as a department,” she said cryptically because she knows more than she’s letting on, but also because she can’t yet reveal the details of what’s coming. “We’re looking at every angle right now.”

The mere idea, whether presented as deregulation of eating or all-you-can-eat college, sends the imagination running. Las Vegas style buffets. Thick steaks. Fresh seafood. Organic vegetables. Various condiments. Portions the size of Quinton Spain offered around a clock that doesn’t expire.

It’s some of that, it’s none of that and it’s all of that, and the mind races until it reaches an inevitable checkpoint. It will, without equivocation, become a recruiting tactic schools will flaunt for their gain and at the expense of those that are more modest. It’s as unmistakable as the gray plumes billowing from a smoker.

“You think about this,” Freshour said. “You’re a football player who goes to school, and the schedule is done for you, you have study hall hours, you get your scholarship check, your books are bought, somebody checks on your classes for you, this, that and the other. And now for breakfast, lunch and dinner, all you have to do is go to the athletic dining hall, where it’s all provided for you.”

Zagat would give that a 30. So would impressionable young adults with appetites as grand as their dreams.

“That’s School A,” Freshour said. “At School B, you have everything, except that you have to provide your own meals on the side and make them or get them yourself.”

The difference is obvious, and probably even critical in the long run, but creating that gap or monitoring the concern isn’t what holds Freshour’s attention. A lot of her job, if not her ambition, is to tutor student-athletes. That’s why she has cooking classes with the football team and food tastings with the women’s soccer team. It’s why she goes to the grocery story with someone on the rowing team and to the farmers’ market with the gymnasts.

She is Maimonides to the Mountaineers, which is why she worries schools might hand kids a fish rather than teach them how to fish.

“At some point, it has to be about taking away life skills,” she said. “A student-athlete comes in his freshman year and has breakfast, lunch and dinner prepared. That athlete after four years comes out and isn’t going to the NFL or the NBA or anywhere else and doesn’t know how to make a sandwich.”

If it’s a massive defensive tackle or a muscle bound wrestler, he might not know how to lose weight the right way. A swimmer or a gymnast might not know how to keep a particular physique. That’s Freshour’s fear and that’s why WVU will continue the educational aspect in addition to the other nuances.

She’s all for giving the athletes more and rewarding them for the time they devote to their sports and how that takes away from being able to grab a smart meal. When Sodexo stocks a training table, it’ll have the whole grain goods, the fresh vegetables, the lean proteins and the complex carbohydrates Freshour tells the athletes to consume on their own.

“There has to be that connection, that reiteration of information if you want to end up being successful with this,” she said.

That goes beyond what happens in Morgantown. In addition to the talks WVU has had, Freshour has been on conference calls with fellow registered dietitians in the Big 12, and they agree whatever comes next for food should emphasize nutrition.

“What I’d like to see out of this is instead of saying, ‘Here, your breakfast, lunch and dinner is prepared every day,’ is to use the deregulation as a means to make sure they’re fueled and recovered,” Freshour said. “Most of them have two or three practices and lifts a day, or something like that, so recovery is very important for the next time they’re going to be active, especially if that’s the same day. So you want to make sure they’re fueled for any type of athletic performance and make sure they’re recovered from that performance.”

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