NCAA offers up ‘unlimited’ meals — but student-athletes are hungry for more

Ex-Mizzou wide reciever T.J. Moe is a strong proponent of paying college athletes and believes the NCAA needs to step up and fix it.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — See, Shabazz Napier got it all wrong. He should’ve said he went to bed broke, not "starving."

So now the NCAA, which never misses a chance to give an inch when asked for a mile, is taking the padlock off the pantry. Its legislative council gave the green light Tuesday for the expansion of meal allowances for student-athletes. It has to be approved by the board of directors, which meets April 24, to be enacted.

And let’s be clear: This was a move prompted by pure, unadulterated shame, first and foremost. If Napier, the stupendous Connecticut guard, the shining star of the NCAA’s biggest event, the men’s basketball tournament, doesn’t stand on the NCAA’s biggest stage and tell reporters that he sometimes goes to bed hungry, this thing probably never sees the light of day.

Still, better the crumbs you know than the crumbs you don’t. Should teammate Ryan Boatright, another outstanding UConn guard, want a midnight snack, he’ll no longer have to resort to his checking account or some kind of Jason Bourne level of subterfuge.

Today, a Snickers bar. Tomorrow, the world.

"Still have a ways to go," T.J. Moe says.


You all remember T.J., right? Moe, who caught 188 balls and 12 touchdowns for Missouri from 2009-12, made headlines a few weeks ago when he went to Twitter to decry not only the NCAA, but the recent movement by Northwestern football players to unionize. That got a fair amount of media attention, including an appearance on MSNBC.

To sum up, he’s down with Wildcat quarterback Kain Colter’s playbook. It’s just that they’re not reading from the same page.

"What the student athletes need is someone to go to bat for them," Moe tweeted. "Not sure what that (would) look like but making themselves employees isn’t smart.

"Autographs, card deals, jersey deals, shoe deals … Allow them to get endorsements. Why limit a kid just because he’s in college?

"I know this, there would be far less (complaints) from student-athletes about the NCAA if (they were) allowed to promote themselves and make $$ from that.

"Tell me Nike wouldn’t love to sponsor a ton of college athletes and use them for profit? Of course they would. Both sides win."

And this:

"No perfect solution. Very, very complex situation. Union isn’t the answer, but I think it’s obvious that something needs to change."

And Moe tells this story, from his Mizzou days, when he met a pal — whom he declines to name — to go out on the town for a meal.

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"We checked his bank account, and it only had $28," the former Tiger recalls. "And I thought, ‘Man, this guy only had 28 dollars to his name.’ The point, to me, is the rules make no sense.

"(The NCAA) is like a bad mother. It really is. It’s like the mom who spent 30 years in jail and had the baby and put him up for adoption, let somebody else take care of him.

"And then, when they go pro, and do well in society, they reclaim them: ‘Yeah, that’s my boy. I claim them.’ What did you do?"

NCAA schools had been allowed to provide three meals per day or a stipend toward meals for scholarship athletes. The new all-you-can-eat provision — The Shabazz Rule, if you like — would also allow walk-ons the same privilege as their peers. The committee also approved a measure requiring football players three-hour breaks between preseason practices, although film sessions and meetings could be held during the interim.

Meanwhile, that golf clap you hear is Moe.

"(The) NCAA is way behind," the ex-Mizzou standout says. "They’ve got a lot of work to do.

"The unlimited meals is common sense. Athletes need more food than normal people because they work out all day, every day. Why would you ever limit that? It’s certainly affordable. Smart move."

Smart first step. Necessary first step.

Now keep walking.

"It’s not working," says Moe, who has been working out in greater St. Louis and plotting his next football move after an injury-shortened stint with the New England Patriots this past fall. "There are still guys taking money under the table … we’re chasing these guys around, chasing the money … we’re wasting money every year."

When you tell a big-time college administrator it’s about education, they say it’s about business. When you tell them it’s a business, they say it’s about education. And the dog chases its tail, round and round again.

Players want a seat at the table; the only question is how to get there, how to stick. Unionization is as much about legal recourse as it is principle. We’re trying to legislate gray areas now, and legislating gray areas is a notoriously tricky business.

So you ask Moe the underlying question, the same one he’s been asked before: Were you a football player at Mizzou who had to go class, or a student at Mizzou who just happened to be excellent at football?

Moe ponders this, and leans toward the former.

But then he says this, too:

"The University of Missouri did absolutely everything within their powers, within the rules, to make my experience as pleasant as possible. They could not have done another thing to make it more pleasant for me. … But the university is not the issue. The issue is the NCAA."

Suddenly, the elephant in the room is under attack from all sides, decades of hypocrisy called to the carpet. The point has been made — by Sports on Earth’s Patrick Hruby and others — that while the concept of an academic and athletic scholarship are the same, the obligations for the individual receiving them are often two completely different animals. An academic or merit-based scholarship may require a certain level of grade-point standing to be maintained, but an athletic scholarship requires a set of specific services to be performed, in addition to what’s expected of the academic regimen.

Given that, the cynic would define — and rightfully so — high-profile student-athletes as mercenaries-for-hire, with the most talented and gifted helping the most popular and profiteering programs to win games and rake in the cash, not necessarily in that order. And when you consider that football and men’s basketball programs are largely responsible for keeping the rest of most athletic departments afloat, it’s hard not to become cynical about the entire exercise.

The anti-pay crowd points out the dollar worth of a scholarship, even without factoring in the full coast of attendance, as payment enough. Given the skyrocketing tuitions at many universities, especially relative to the growth (or lack thereof) of family incomes over the last 15 years, it’s a fair cop.

But the pro-pay crowd counters with the fact that the dollars the aforementioned student-athletes receive — whether you want to call it "payment," a "gift," or whatever — for their commitments, toil and entertainment services are relatively small given the money pouring in to the universities, conferences and, indeed, the NCAA itself.

And there, even the anti-pay crowd admits, the pro-payers have a point. Somebody has been getting richer and richer out of this whole deal. And it’s not the families of the kids in question. And it’s not the kids themselves.

When workers are exploited, or feeling exploited, they unionize. It happened with steel workers in 1942. It happened in Major League Baseball in 1885, but didn’t really stick until after 1953. It happened in the NFL in 1956.

The word "union" has been demonized in some corners of popular culture and media, particularly over the last 30 years, as tantamount with "lazy" and "entitled." And your comfort with the word, if not the concept, may depend on your world view: If you’re the son of a teacher, you see it as an integral part of the checks-and-balances that protect the rights of the employee against the corporate machine. If you’re a small business owner, you see a strong-arming, soulless conglomerate trying to make your life miserable. The spin comes hard and fast, from both sides of the aisle. The truth probably falls, as it usually does, somewhere in the middle.

And even if a union isn’t the "right" answer, only the willfully deluded could look at the present and call it really, truly equitable. There’s a level of venality inherent to the system, whether you believe it to be mild, forgivable, or egregious. The T.J. Moes of the world deserve a fairer share of something — be it money, time, or their social lives back.

Moe is pushing for student-athletes to profit, or share a cut of the profit, off their likenesses, as that something — a notion not that dissimilar from how Olympic athletes handle these things now. If a Maty Mauk or a Perry Ellis lands an endorsement deal with a local car dealership and a golfer can’t, well, that’s a qualm of the open market. It’s supply and demand.

"They did a study once in Texas — what is the fair market value (for a football player)?" Moe says. "And they came up with $578,000 a year. A scholarship was only worth $37,500 at the time, or whatever that was. And they said, well, if you take into account the training they have and the tutors … I said, ‘Fine, add $50K to it, you’re still cutting them short a half-million.’ To me, it’s a useless argument. We’re not getting anywhere."

But that’s a business mindset, and the NCAA is about education. And the dog chases its tail again.

"The NCAA needs to start by allowing full cost of attendance," Moe says, "because it’s been proven that their limitations cause schools to come up short of kids’ needs. Then go from there."

Smart first step. Necessary first step.

Now keep walking.

Click on the official UConn Huskies web page, and the fifth tab from the left says "SHOP." A few clicks later, you land on a page that’s selling a replica Boatright jersey, No. 11 in wedding-gown white with a blue Nike swoosh at the top. Yours today for only $74.95.

"Step into the Harry A. Gampel Pavilion lookin’ your very best," the text to the right of the jersey promises, "while supporting your favorite b-baller in the Nike Elite replica basketball jersey."

And yet, of those 75 clams, your "favorite b-baller" doesn’t see a stinking dime of it.

Like the man says: A ways to go. Still.

You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter at @seankeeler or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com.