Washington State was already planning a student-athlete dining center when the NCAA ‘deregulated’ its complicated, unrealistic rules on meals.
The opening of Washington State’s $61 million Cougar Football Complex in the summer of 2014 coincided with a small but significant change in the NCAA’s rules governing nutrition for student-athletes.
Until April 2014, schools weren’t allowed to provide snacks other than bagels, fruits, nuts and peanut butter for their student-athletes. Sorry, no cream cheese, Greek yogurt, nonfat milk or vegetables allowed.
“We couldn’t provide a carrot or broccoli to athletes because it would have been a violation of an NCAA rule,” said Lindsay Brown, who was hired as WSU’s Coordinator of Sports Nutrition in August 2011.
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The NCAA’s old rules regarding student nutrition were overcomplicated and unrealistic, and they made it difficult for nutritionists to provide athletes with natural foods over processed ones such as energy bars, Brown said.
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Then, as the student-athletes’ rights movement engulfed college sports in 2014, the NCAA finally changed its permissible-nutrition rules to allow schools to provide their athletes with unlimited snacks and meals.
“It was ridiculous, the amount of time we sat around debating peanut butter versus cream cheese,” WSU athletic director Bill Moos said, adding that he’s long been an advocate for better student-athlete nutrition because “you can’t put two-bit gasoline into a sports car and expect it to perform.”
The Cougars were ahead of the curve when the rules change occurred because plans for a student-athlete dining center had already been included in the blueprint for the Cougar Football Complex, which began construction in 2013.
Now, instead of getting only one meal a day from the Cougar Athletic training table the way they used to, WSU’s student-athletes take all their meals at the Grey W Legends Lounge dining hall in the Cougar Football Complex.
A full-time staff that includes two executive chefs and a general manager serves three meals a day, and student-athletes can also grab smoothies or other snacks from the refueling stations set up outside the two weight rooms. In addition, WSU athletes work with two full-time nutritionists on staff. Every incoming freshman or transfer athlete gets a nutrition screening when they first get to WSU.
These improved nutrition options will cost WSU about $900,000 a year, but surprisingly, that’s not much more than the Cougars were already spending to provide a rudimentary training table for their athletes before the deregulation of the NCAA’s food rules.
“We were paying for one meal before, from Housing and Dining Services, and it was $800,000 for one meal a day for all (student-athletes) participating in the Cougar Athletic Training Table program,” said Matt Kleffner, Senior Associate Athletics Director and CFO at WSU.
It doesn’t sound monumental, but the deregulation of the NCAA’s food restrictions has made a significant difference.
NCAA’s evolving rules on nutrition
Old: An institution may provide fruit, nuts and bagels to a student-athlete at any time.
New: An institution may provide snacks to a student-athlete at any time.
Old: A student-athlete who is not receiving athletically related financial aid (e.g., walk-on) may receive the benefit of a training-table meal during the permissible playing and practice season in those instances in which the student-athlete’s schedule is affected by involvement in practice activities, provided the student-athlete previously has paid for the same meal (e.g., dinner) at an institutional dining facility.
New: An institution may provide meals to student-athletes that are incidental to practice activities in the locale of the institution during the playing season at times other than vacation periods. An institution may provide the cash equivalent of a meal to a student-athlete only if the student-athlete misses a meal due to practice activities and he or she has previously paid for the meal (either individually or through the board element of a scholarship). During vacation periods, including the summer when preseason practice occurs, an institution may provide the cost of meals (either actual meals or per diem for three meals per day) and an additional meal each day pursuant to Bylaws 16.5.2-(b) and 16.5.2-(e).
NCAA rule book
“Now, we’re able to provide any food item in conjunction with participation,” Brown said. “We focus on whole food, real food. There’s been a lot of change within the last year with nutrition.”
That means an emphasis on snacks such as nonfat milk, hummus, hard-boiled eggs and cheese instead of relying on processed supplements.
Brown works closely with the Cougars’ two executive chefs to devise menus that stress clean eating and natural food.
On a recent evening, the Grey W Legends Lounge menu featured pesto chicken breast, seared ahi tuna, oven-roasted red potatoes, sesame green beans and oven-roasted tri tip.
The idea, Brown says, is to expose athletes to healthy habits and seasonal produce that many of them have never seen. Rainbow carrots and butternut squash are new experiences for many, and Brown said her rule for athletes is, “don’t form an opinion until you try it.”
“We really try to encourage them to taste and try things they aren’t familiar with. It’s part of the learning process,” Brown said. “You’d be surprised by how many athletes don’t really eat vegetables and don’t really know what they are. We are forming life habits here.”
Brown holds cooking classes for athletes, and occasionally takes small groups to the grocery store to teach them how to shop for healthy food. She also meets with athletes and crafts personalized nutrition plans for them based on their fitness goals.
WSU football wide receiver Dom Williams, for instance, is a self-confessed McDonald’s lover whose standard order is usually “two double cheeseburgers, a large fries, a large sweet tea and two apple pies.”
But ever since spring football, when Brown started helping Williams adjust his diet, “I don’t have (McDonald’s) as much anymore. I’ve been working with her to eat things that are healthy for me,” Williams said. “I’ve probably gained six to seven pounds from lifting and eating the right foods.”
Moos believes that the Cougars’ commitment to nutrition has already yielded results on the field of play.
“Our student-athletes now look different than before,” Moos said. “The startup costs were expensive, but I felt this was an important ingredient in putting ourselves in a position to compete in the Pac-12. … I thought that would help in recruiting. The nourishment bit really resonates with the parents.”