The NCAA ends its food fight

We can all agree, as NCAA president Mark Emmert said Friday, that defining the difference between a meal and a snack is dumb. But the fact is, as the NCAA is structured, an athletic program can incur the wrath of NCAA enforcement if it subscribes to the wrong definition. An FBS athletic director told me Thursday night that he won't know how much it will cost to feed his student-athlete three square meals a day and snacks until the NCAA tells him the difference between a meal and a snack.

These rules didn't suddenly become absurd -- another word Emmert employed -- Friday. They have caused eye-rolling for years. The difference is that no one is defending them any longer.

SEC commissioner Mike Slive said Wednesday night that there's a simple way to view the reason to have a rule. For as long as anyone can remember, the NCAA manual has been used to create a level playing field. Slive's suggestion: "Make the primacy of what we do the student-athlete."

That shift of focus can change everything. If the focus of what the NCAA does is to benefit the student-athlete, then it is a no-brainer to feed them three meals a day. It is obvious that they should receive the full cost of attendance, which is available to non-athletes on campus. Give them all the medical coverage a school can afford. Give them all of everything a school can afford.

Most important, if a school can't afford it, don't allow it to hold back the schools that can. That is the essence of the governance changes that the NCAA is in the process of making. Division I can never level its playing field, and thank goodness it's about to stop trying.

Pick the silliest NCAA rules, and the odds are, the NCAA membership passed them to level the playing field. That is the genesis of the one-meal-a-day rule. It was passed in January 1991 as part of a revolutionary package of reforms endorsed by the NCAA Presidents Commission with the intent of reining in runaway spending and reasserting university control over athletics.

"It is time for the NCAA membership to act on the basis of Association interest -- what is best for the whole of college athletics -- rather than what might be desired by any of its component parts," NCAA executive director Dick Schultz said that week at the NCAA convention in Nashville.

The Presidents Commission came about at the end of the 1980s, a decade of rampant cheating, amid concerns that intercollegiate athletics had gone out of control. The SMU death penalty remained a fresh memory. The vast majority of athletic administrators welcomed the presidents asserting their control. The presidents did so with a heavy hand. Virtually the only officials to complain about the rules changes were the coaches who would have to operate under them. But their voices were not taken seriously.

The American economy sputtered at the time -- President George H.W. Bush would lose his re-election bid the following year -- and the fear of continued overspending served as an impetus for the reform package. Budget issues certainly generated more fear than the thought of what might happen to student-athletes who didn't get enough to eat. The reform package included rules to benefit student-athletes, among them the 20-hour playing week.

Nearly a quarter-century later, most of that cost-cutting package has been repealed or become obsolete. The 20-hour rule is a rule in name only, as the NLRB regional director explained in his ruling in the Northwestern case.

The rule cutting coaching staffs and limiting the earnings of some assistant coaches cost the NCAA members $54.5 million to settle an antitrust suit. There is one significant exception. The decision to reduce the overall scholarship limit for FBS schools from 95 to 85 brought about increased parity that has served the sport well.

If money is speech, as the U.S. Supreme Court just finished saying, then the top FBS schools have a lot to say. If, as Slive says, the first words out of their collective mouths are "student-athlete," then intercollegiate athletics will survive their self-induced crisis.

But events -- lawsuits, the Northwestern case -- are moving faster than the NCAA membership is. "If we don't find a way to funnel more benefits to student-athletes," Pacific athletic director Ted Leland said last week, "then people on the outside are going to do it for us."