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How the NCAA Banned Cream Cheese

The NCAA is rewriting its rule book over the next couple of years. Starting in January, the Board of Directors will begin voting in actual proposals from the Rules Working Group to slim down a manual that while not actually near the size of the tax code, is still voluminous and unwieldy. When it comes to the NCAA’s outdated or petty rules,example is used more than all the others combined:

[NCAA President Mark] Emmert said the NCAA plans to “change the nature of our penalty structure and the magnitude of our penalties and the way we adjudicate penalty cases so that we’re focusing on those things that are real threats to integrity and not whether somebody did a text message or had too many phone calls or served a bagel with cream cheese.

Bagels and the toppings or spreads people put on them have been a source of contention for over three years. The way the story gets told is that the NCAA is regulating cream cheese on bagels, spending time, effort, money, and people making sure that bagels for student-athletes are dry as the desert.

The reality though is a little different. The challenge is not making a smaller, more focused rule book, but keeping it that way. The story of how bagels became permissible but spreads did not is important to remember so the same process is not repeated all over again.

Nutritional Supplements

Student-athletes, or at least full scholarship student-athletes, can be provided three meals per day most of the time. Then there are a host of exceptions for game day meals, meals during road trips, meals during vacation periods, etc. Normally one of those regular three meals can be a training table meal, which is typically an all-you-can-eat affair.

Until recently though, the same went for the other two meals. Dining halls were only open for short periods of time, but were all-you-can-eat buffets. Meal plans were sold around the concept of “meals,” that is entry to the dining hall. The NCAA still has on the books rules which assume a dining hall is only open for say two hours for dinner.

Over the last decade or two, college dining halls gave way to food courts, where the hours are longer, food is purchased a la carte, and meal plans revolve around points or dollars. This shift is blamed for a host of ills in colleges, but one area impacted is the ability to meet the caloric needs of elite athletes. Because colleges lack the buying power of a grocery store or fast food chain, prices are higher. Many people would be shocked how little food $4,000/year buys on a college campus.

To combat this, in 2000 the NCAA members voted to allow schools to provide unlimited amounts of “nutritional supplements” to student-athletes.

Permissible Nutritional Supplements:

  • Carbohydrate/electrolyte drinks;
  • Energy bars;
  • Carbohydrate boosters; or
  • Vitamins and minerals.

The common thread is all of these categories involve heavily processed or manufactured food. Energy bars might be healthier than candy bars, but many have excess sugar, corn syrup or preservatives.

In 2008, to add some real food into the equation, the Atlantic Coast Conference put forward Proposal 2008–43, which sought to allow schools to provide “fruits, nuts and bagels to student-athletes at any time.” Fruits, nuts, and bagels might seem like a pretty clear list to the average person, but the Awards, Benefits, Expenses and Financial Aid Cabinet caught the problem just about one month after the proposal was published:

The cabinet also notes the likely interpretive issues related to the proposal.

Two issues were brought up right off the bat. First, spreads and toppings on bagels were prohibited. The reasoning was to prevent something intended as a snack or supplement from becoming a meal (because then you could eat pizza anytime, right?). Second, only “whole foods” were permitted. You could not get around the prohibition on bagel spreads by providing jelly (technically a fruit product) or peanut butter (technically a nut or legume product).

This was necessary because schools were planning on trying these tricks. Stories even floated around about coaches planning to stock a room with bagels, peanuts, and a peanut butter machine to let student-athletes make their own spreads.

So the real story is that the NCAA did not set out to make sure bagels went unschmeared. The membership instead loosened the reins a bit without loosening them a bit more. Having given themselves an inch, schools were trying to at least stall the process of taking a mile. The result though is that a proposal in the spirit of deregulation makes the rule book larger and more complicated.

There’s two postscripts to the story. Last year the Big East offered up Proposal 2011–78 which would have permitted bagel spreads, namely butter, peanut butter, jelly, and cream cheese to be provided alongside the bagels at any time. The proposal went nowhere because the 2011–12 legislative cycle was more or less shut down by the Presidential Retreat. As much as it delayed a needed fix, this might have been a blessing in disguise. Continue down that path too long and you end up providing whole meals out of a list of exceptions, instead of rethinking the rule.

The other postscript is that the rule will be rethought over the next year. A fix to the bagel and/or meal issue is not in the current set of proposals, but meals are on the list of topics to be discussed in 2013, with proposals coming as soon as next summer. It is likely that by 2014 bagels will be adorned with all manner of condiments. That is, if schools are not simply allowed to provide a full breakfast instead.

Does the NCAA need to revise the rule book to make it less complicated? Let us know in the comments section below, or connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+!

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