Ohio State dietitian Sarah Wick saw athletes arrive hungry for early-morning workouts.
She saw them leave after practice with empty stomachs, rushing to class with no time to grab something nutritious.
Wick would ache for those athletes. Compounding her angst was the frustration of knowing she could do little to help.
Until April, the NCAA had strict rules about the food that college sports programs could provide athletes. Teams could have one training-table meal per day in season, but beyond that, they were limited in almost absurd ways.
Providing a bagel was fine. It was considered a supplementary item. Adding peanut butter to that bagel? Forbidden. That crossed an only-makes-sense-to-the-NCAA line and became a prohibited “meal.”
On the night he led Connecticut to the NCAA men’s basketball championship, star guard Shabazz Napier made waves when he said that he sometimes went to bed hungry because of the organization’s restrictions on what schools could provide athletes. Soon after, the NCAA lifted those limits.
“It’s going to be a game-changer, absolutely, for all the sports,” said Wick, who has been Ohio State’s football dietitian for two years and is transitioning to oversee nutrition throughout the athletic department.
But Wick has had little time to celebrate the lifting of restrictions. Although the change was almost universally applauded, it has created a daunting challenge: What do you do when, all of a sudden, you can provide anything you want?
“At first, we were like, ‘Oh, this is great,’ and then we sat down and looked at the logistics, and it’s like, ‘Oh, my Lord, how are we going to do this?’ ” said Miechelle Willis, Ohio State’s executive associate director of athletics.
Athletic-department personnel have had numerous meetings to figure out the best way to implement a program. It has not been easy, and the task is not complete.
When the restrictions were lifted, some people thought that deep-pocketed programs such as Ohio State would start providing gourmet meals to its athletes. It seemed possible that providing food would just be the latest weapon in a seemingly never-ending arms race in college sports. Coaching salaries have skyrocketed. Athletic departments are in the midst of a wave of facility expansion. Ohio State’s renovated locker room has a water wall, after all.
In an effort to lure recruits and keep current players happy, why wouldn’t fancy meals be the next selling point? But it doesn’t look as if Buckeyes athletes should expect regular servings of surf and turf. Logistics and cost will preclude that.
“We are trying to refrain from the knee-jerk reaction of going the other direction of providing lavish meals,” Willis said. “We have always been broad-based in our approach. We want to provide the same thing for all our student-athletes.”
That doesn’t mean that every athlete will eat the same, she said. Each athlete is different and has different nutritional requirements. But the goal is to be egalitarian.
For now, she said, Ohio State is determined to provide what athletes need, not necessarily fulfill a wish list. She said, for example, there is no immediate plan to hire a chef.
“Our No. 1 priority is: How do we provide nutrition for our student-athletes to optimize athletic and academic performance?” Willis said. “We’re more concerned with a student-athlete coming in to a 6 a.m. workout having had no breakfast or leaving a 6 a.m. workout and going to class and not having time to have a meal. That’s more of a concern with us than whether we’re going to have huge bells and whistles, at this point.”
Junior linebacker Joshua Perry said that Ohio State players haven’t been told what changes are coming. Although he said he hasn’t experienced the hunger about which Napier complained, Perry believes that lifting the restrictions will help all athletes.
“They’re deregulating what we can have, and that will enable us to replenish our bodies after training,” he said. “And guys aren’t going to be so worried about budgeting for meals and running out of their meal plan.
“This rule is very important because I know that a lot of guys don’t necessarily get the proper type of nutrition. We’ll be allowed to eat as much as we can, and it’ll be a lot of the right stuff and not just eating because we feel hungry.”
Ohio State’s first priority is to set up a handful of nutrition, or “fueling,” stations at various facilities that will be stocked with healthy snacks such as nutrition bars, sandwiches and fruit.
Football is the highest-profile sport and has the most players of any in the Ohio State athletic program, but in some ways, providing for them is not as challenging. For one thing, they already have a nutrition station that has been providing healthy snacks to players. The team has a large lounge on the second floor of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, so it has the space to increase food options.
But for most other sports, it is building from scratch. Ohio State’s teams train in far-flung facilities, some of which lack the space to accommodate a serving area or even a small kitchen.
Many players live off-campus. The women’s volleyball program used to have a training table only a quarter-mile from its St. John Arena practice site, but so few players used it that it was discontinued.
Cost is another factor. Willis said that $300,000 has been allocated from the athletic budget to get the nutrition program off the ground. That sum no doubt will rise as the program expands.
But for now, there might be more questions than answers. Mickey Marotti, Ohio State’s assistant athletic director for football sports performance, said he was at a symposium recently with his counterparts at other schools. The lifting of food restrictions was a hot topic.
“There were a bunch of guys from schools talking. ‘What are you going to do?’ ” he said.
The answer he heard repeatedly was, “I don’t know.”
It won’t be an issue for preseason football camp, which starts at the beginning of August. The NCAA has long allowed teams to provide meals during camp.
But later next month, the academic year begins. Ready or not, mouths will need to be fed.
“You’re hoping it was going to happen, and you weren’t sure it was ever going to happen,” Marotti said of the NCAA ending restrictions. “Now that it’s happened, it’s kind of, ‘Don’t freak out.’ We’ve got time, and we’ll work through it and figure out the best plan.”