When the NCAA membership passed Proposal 2013-31-B and permitted institutions much more discretion to feed athletes, institutions immediately began to ask exactly what "meals and snacks incidental to participation" meant. Celebrity chefs, athlete-only dining halls, 24-hour meal service, even breakfast in bed were all brought up. While institutions wanted more freedom to feed athletes, they also wanted clarity on exactly what was allowed for three reasons:
- So they did not get in trouble for providing too much food.
- So they had something to use to tell coaches no.
- So their competitors were not getting too far ahead of them.
Today the NCAA gave the good and bad news. The good news is that the schools will likely not get in trouble for feeding athletes. The bad news is that is because the NCAA today issued an Educational Column declining to spell out any particulars:
NCAA Division I member institutions are reminded that beginning August 1, 2014, an institution is permitted to provide meals and snacks to student-athletes as a benefit incidental to participation in intercollegiate athletics. The following information is designed to assist institutions with the application of the legislation.
Since the adoption of Proposal No. 2013-31-B, the NCAA national office has received numerous questions from the membership regarding the application of the new legislation. More specifically, given that the legislation provides institutions the discretion to provide all student-athletes (scholarship and nonscholarship) with meals and snacks incidental to participation, questions have arisen concerning the impact on financial aid legislation and the meaning of "incidental to participation." Consistent with the deregulatory nature of this rule change and recognizing the uniqueness of institutional meal plans and polices, institutions and conferences have the discretion to provide student-athletes other meals or snacks as they deem appropriate and consistent with institutional policies and financial aid regulations. As adopted, the legislation does not permit institutions to avoid applying the financial aid legislation. For example, meals and snacks provided as benefits incidental to participation in intercollegiate athletics are not intended to replace meals that would normally be provided through a dining plan or an off-campus board stipend.
The Division I membership will have the opportunity to examine the various outcomes of this new legislation through the new governance model.
Lastly, similar to the deregulation that occurred as part of the NCAA Working Group on Collegiate Model – Rules process in the area of student-athlete benefits, the membership should be assured that exercising the discretion described above to provide meals or snacks to student-athletes will not result in second-guessing by the NCAA staff.
To summarize: an institution can provide any meals or snacks that are not intended to replace meals provided as part of the board element of financial aid. The NCAA is not clarifying what "incidental to participation" means, it is up to institutions to define that phrase. If an institution comes up with a reasonable explanation how a meal or snack is "incidental to participation" and not intended to replace a regular meal, the NCAA will not come back and find them guilty of violations over a difference in opinion.
With the NCAA refusing to set specific guidelines, expect some conferences to come up with their own rules or to at least try to normalize what additional food is permissible across the conference.