Jan 29, 2015
Counting Calorie Costs

By Dave Ellis

The NCAA Division I rulebook seems to expand annually, and each year some of those changes involve training table or nutrition supplementation issues for student-athletes. In 2004, I asked a compliance officer at a major university to summarize all the food and nutritional supplement topics covered in the NCAA rule book. That synopsis turned into a 39 page report!

Everything from how much, when, what, and how often student-athletes can be fed or supplemented is tightly regulated. And yet something as fundamental as what constitutes a “meal” is very poorly defined.

Before we start criticizing the NCAA for this, it’s important to understand that it does not make the rules. The NCAA is simply in charge of interpreting and enforcing the regulations passed by various committees that are comprised of representatives from member institutions.

After working 20 years in the collegiate ranks at the University of Nebraska and the University of Wisconsin, I have witnessed the genesis of many of the rules governing student-athlete nutrition. Many are born from committees made up of athletic directors and associate athletic directors who are trying to maintain a safe and level playing field so that the “haves” do not distance themselves from the “have nots.”

Every school wants to legislate cost containment so that spending and growth are capped to some degree. Unfortunately, all too often student-athlete welfare becomes collateral damage when cost containment strategies are put into place. And once a policy is in place and it saves an institution money, it is rarely changed.

For example, the value of a room and board scholarship is based on the published price in the official student handbook. This price represents the cost of living and eating for students living in dorms. However, this published price is often very diluted due to the missed meal factor.

Often up to 40 percent or more of the meals a dorm dweller has paid for as part of a meal package are skipped as students tire of eating the same cafeteria food every day. The food service departments factor these skipped meals into their budgets when developing a pricing structure, and as a result, the average meal cost included in athletic scholarships is inaccurate.

Publishing low room and board prices are a good way to make dorm living appear more attractive. However, when a student-athlete moves off campus, many find that their food allowance just isn’t enough. This usually forces them into a survival mode when it comes to their dietary needs. Instead of enjoying a healthy dinner, you might find a starving student-athlete eating fried cheese and cocktail weenies at a local club’s happy hour spread. This is not an ideal nutritional setup.

I feel more realistic costs on living and feeding should be used when placing a monetary value on an athletic scholarship. The financial challenges that go along with feeding active, growing student-athletes are well known. But after many years, these rules have not been changed, and you can bet cost containment is the reason why. To me, it’s an issue analogous to raising the minimum wage.

The last six years of consulting with college and pro teams has allowed me to see a great cross section of nutrition and body composition support services across the country. One thing is for certain: each institution interprets the rules a little differently depending upon the philosophy of that school’s compliance officers. Some compliance officers send in every question they have to NCAA Membership Services for official interpretation while others prefer to use existing gray areas to their advantage.

So why don’t all compliance officers ask for interpretations? Because once you get an official interpretation, there is no wiggle room, and everyone has to live with it. This is made more difficult by how the NCAA has been defining and enforcing what constitutes an “extra benefit.”

The energy that it takes to uphold checks and balances and to cope with the NCAA’s strict interpretations is formidable. Typically, these interpretations go unchallenged and are difficult to track at an institutional level.

Sadly, even the most motivated student-athletes have struggled to get any traction on rule changes or interpretations they feel are unjust. One solution that might help is for student-athletes to form a watchdog group to stay on top of the abundant NCAA rulings and interpretations regarding nutrition. This group could represent the student-athletes by going on the record with the NCAA and the media to share their thoughts on rulings they feel compromise student-athlete welfare.

Sports dietitian and strength coach Dave Ellis, RD, CSCS, has been refining and field-testing his three-step Fueling Tactics sports nutrition system for over 25 years. He recently released his nutrition system on DVD at his website: www.fuelingtactics.com. Named a finalist for the 2007 USOC “Doc” Counsilman Award and Chair of the NSCA’s Nutrition Special Interest group, Dave has experience at all levels of sport, which has made him a valuable asset for some of the most demanding sport coaches and a valuable sounding board for our readers.

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