Approved NCAA rule allowing unlimited meals and snacks to affect Cal athletes

The NCAA’s Board of Directors approved a rule change Thursday allowing Division I athletes to receive unlimited meals and snacks. The new guidelines go beyond the previous policy that limited scholarship athletes to three meals per day or a stipend for food.

Granting unlimited meals not only applies to those who are on scholarship, but also to walk-on athletes who did not previously receive a food allotment.The rules will take effect Aug. 1.

“With respect to the NCAA legislation surrounding Division I student-athletes receiving unlimited meals and snacks in conjunction with their athletics participation, we are in favor of making sure the core needs of our student-athletes are met,” said a spokesperson for Cal Athletics in a written statement.

The expanded policy could lead to higher costs for the athletic department. In the 2013 fiscal year, more than 1,000 athletes were a part of Cal’s 27 athletic teams. The department had a budget surplus of more than $1.48 million.

“This is great for student-athletes,” the spokesperson said in the statement. “However, there are a number of financial, logistical and other issues that will need to be considered and worked out in advance. Nonetheless, our collective ability to constantly evaluate what provides the appropriate conditions for success for student-athletes is of paramount concern to us.”

The policy change also comes at a crucial time for the NCAA. The governing body of collegiate athletics is currently fighting high-profile lawsuits that challenge its stance that its competitors are amateurs.

One of those lawsuits involves Cal football offensive lineman William Tyndall, who is a plaintiff in a federal class-action case filed last month that argues that the NCAA and five major collegiate conferences — the Atlantic Coast, the Big 12, the Big 10, the Pac-12 and Southeastern conferences — are allegedly violating federal anti-trust laws by putting a limit on the total money that athletes on scholarship can receive.

On Friday, football players at Northwestern University will vote on whether to form a union, after a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board in March stated they should be treated as employees.

Stephen Ross, director of Penn State’s Institute for Sports Law, Policy and Research said a limit on the number of meals and snacks provided to athletes was a way to level the playing field among competing universities and avoid an escalation of competition between schools to lure recruits. While he does not believe the changes to meal allotment for athletes is a direct response to the recent pressure the NCAA has received, he argues that athletic departments have a vested in treating their revenue-generating athletes well.

In fiscal year 2013, Cal’s football and men’s basketball teams combined to bring in more than $47 million to the school’s athletic department and generated a more than $15 million surplus.

“Why wouldn’t the athletic director want the guys who are bringing in the money to be well fed?” Ross said.

More broadly, the NCAA is also making a greater shift to how the 65 schools in the five major conferences should be treated.

On Thursday, the DivisionI Board of Directors proposed a new structure that would grant more “autonomy” to the major conferences by offering increased benefits for their athletes, such as greater financial aid, insurance for athletes and more academic help. These recommendations will be voted on in August.

“Pressure is mounting on the NCAA to come up with some other model,” said Mark Brilliant, a UC Berkeley associate professor of history and American studies. “Change is in the air. Is it going to be the courts that are going to drive that change, or is it going to be the NCAA, informed, hopefully, by ideas put forth by its premier universities like UC Berkeley?”

Contact Stephen Hobbs at [email protected].