In a locker room in AT&T Stadium after the University of Connecticut Huskies won the NCAA Division I men’s basketball national championship, UConn’s star player, Shabazz Napier, sat in a locker room. Like many champions before him, he sat with media members’ recorders in front of his face engaging in a post-game interview. While there was nothing extraordinary about the setting, it was the words that came out of Napier’s mouth that made the interview out of the ordinary: ”Sometimes, there’s hungry nights where I’m not able to eat, but I still gotta play up to my capabilities.”
In a period where the NCAA amateurism landscape is facing the greatest threat of extinction, Napier’s words were thunderous. Napier’s comments turned the talk away from conversations about paying college athletes and instead refocused attention on the plausibility that some college athletes’ most basic needs are not being fully met.
Today the NCAA Division I Legislative Council approved a rule allowing Division I programs to grant all of their athletes unlimited meals and snacks. The rules change will not be considered final until the NCAA Division I board of directors meets on April 24. As it currently stands, NCAA Division I programs are allowed to provide scholarship athletes with one training table meal per day. A cost for the training table meal is deducted from the amount of money those athletes receive to purchase food plans or other food with. Walk-on and non-scholarship athletes may participate in training table meals, but must pay to eat them.
While NCAA athletes’ appetites were victorious today, what signal was sent to college athletes about how to pursue other desired changes to the NCAA’s bylaws?
Although the timing of the NCAA’s decision coincided nicely with Napier’s comments, the issue of allowing schools to provide athletes unlimited meals has actually been on the NCAA’s table since 2012. It was in that year that theCollegiate and Professional Sport Dietitians Association provided data to the NCAA demonstrating that some of its athletes were not receiving proper nutrition. In turn, the Collegiate and Professional Sport Dietitians Association suggested that the NCAA allow its member institutions to grant their athletes unlimited meals. The proposal has worked its way through the NCAA’s governance system since 2012 to make it to today’s vote.
The learning lesson for college athletes therefore is twofold. The first lesson is that the backing of a professional organization and its research bolsters the credibility of their requested NCAA bylaw changes. Would the NCAA have been spurred to action to allow unlimited meals based on Napier’s comments alone? While the answer to that question is unknown, it’s unlikely. However, when presented with data that demonstrated a large number of college athletes lack proper nutrition, it became harder for the NCAA to turn away from such requests. Thus, in asking the NCAA for things beyond what a grant in aid allows, college athletes should seek the assistance of professional organizations whose research lines up with what they’re requesting.
The second lesson from the NCAA’s decision today is that timing and public relations don’t hurt in pushing the NCAA to make changes that college athletes desire. Again, it is unknown whether the Division I Legislative Council would have voted the way it did today had Napier not made his comments about nights spent hungry. Yet, it is arguable that by focusing attention on his hunger nearly immediately after winning a national championship Napier put the NCAA in a corner where it had no option but to allow for unlimited meals. Yes, the legislation on unlimited meals had been working its way through the NCAA since 2012. However, if Napier did not make his comments, would the NCAA have faced the public relations nightmare it would have if the Legislative Council voted against the proposal? Thus, today’s decision show that there is power behind some college athletes’ voices. However, it is the platform and manner in which they choose to use those voices that dictates whether they will be heard.