NCAA Beats 'Strategic Retreat' On Food Rules For Student Athletes

The NCAA is facing scrutiny for how it treats student athletes. NPR's Wade Goodwyn talks to New York Times columnist Joe Nocera about changes the organization made this week.

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WADE GOODWYN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Wade Goodwyn. This week, the NCAA voted to allow colleges to provide their student athletes with as much food as they like. It may sound like a bizarre move, but what the NCAA allows athletes to eat on the college's dime is subject to its own set of rules. And they can sometimes border on the absurd. The move by the NCAA comes at a time when the organization is facing a bit of second-guessing about the way it's gone about its traditional role of policing college athletics.

We're joined by Joe Nocera from our studio in New York. He's a columnist for the New York Times and has been writing about the NCAA. Joe, thanks for being with us.

JOE NOCERA: Thanks for having me, Wade.

GOODWYN: Let's start with the news this week - more meal money for college athletes.

NOCERA: (Laughter) Right.

GOODWYN: Is this an important development, no big deal or a strategic retreat by the NCAA?

NOCERA: I vote for C, strategic retreat. You know, they used to have a rule that if you're a student athlete, you could have a bagel. But if somebody put cream cheese on it, that would be a violation of NCAA rules. The NCAA regulates almost every aspect of an athlete's life. And they do it supposedly for competitive balance reasons, but it really has gotten kind of nutty. And I hope that this is the first of many strategic retreats.

GOODWYN: The biggest news of late has been a ruling that will allow Northwestern football players to form a union. How do you think that's going to impact NCAA?

NOCERA: Well, I think it already has impacted the NCAA. It has created an enormous amount of awareness of what athletes have to go through, you know, how much they have to work, the extent to which their sport comes before academics and so on and so forth. So I think it has had a large impact already. The vote is on April 25.

And, you know, the Northwestern coach is on record as saying he wants the players to vote against the union. I suspect it will be an uphill struggle to get the union approved given the pressure that's on these 18 and 19-year-old kids to vote it down.

GOODWYN: And why have a union?

NOCERA: One of the big problems in college sports is that there's nobody advocating for the players. And the idea of having a union is they give the players a seat at the table and to allow them to negotiate for things like improved medical care, guaranteed scholarships. They're not even asking for money at this point. You know, Wade, a large part of the problem here, really, is that universities of higher education really aren't equipped to be running a major American entertainment complex. And that's what leads to so many of these problems and so much of the hypocrisy that surrounds college sports.

GOODWYN: Do you think paying players is coming?

NOCERA: I do. There's a case out there called the O'Bannon case which is supposed to come to trial in June. It has to do with the licensing rights for athletes and whether the NCAA has the right to those licensing rights in perpetuity. If O'Bannon wins, I think you could very easily see colleges move to an Olympic model, where although they don't get paid for playing, they can get endorsements, they can sign autographs, they can have jobs, they can do other things that put money in their pocket. I think that's a very likely scenario.

GOODWYN: Joe Nocera's a columnist for the New York Times. He joined us from New York. All the best, Joe.

NOCERA: Hey, thank you, Wade.

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