FINE DINING: All UI athletes benefit from NCAA rule
CHAMPAIGN — The swanky Colonnades Club at Memorial Stadium hosts 1,000-plus Illinois football fans on Saturdays in the fall.
In the offseason, the calendar is crammed with wedding receptions, rehearsal dinners and private parties.
But starting next month, a large group of new guests — ones who likely couldn't afford a block of the premium seats outside the 15,000-square-foot space — will congregate there up to 18 times a week.
On Aug. 25, the club will become the new dining hall for athletes in every varsity sport at the UI, thanks to new NCAA legislation that allows schools to provide unlimited meals and snacks to all, whether they're on full scholarship or a walk-on, on campus.
It's a big change — and one schools didn't have much time to react to. Up until now, Illinois has provided dinner five days a week for athletes in just four sports — football, men's and women's basketball and volleyball — at another Memorial Stadium spot, the much smaller Varsity Room. All other athletes were responsible for their own meals and where they ate them.
NCAA Proposal No. 2013-31-B passed in late April — without the years of conversation and committees that have slowed past legislation. It takes effect on Aug. 1. The UI's plan is to feed athletes from the Varsity Room for the first three weeks, then shift everything to the Colonnades Club three-and-a-half weeks later, when classes start and all of the students have arrived, said Dawn Aubrey, associate director of Housing and Dining Services.
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"It's a location (Illinois athletics) really likes because it's convenient for their athletes because they are working and practicing near there," Aubrey said. "There's only a handful of sports that are back at that point by Aug. 1, and it's not too large of a number that we can't accommodate at the Varsity Room."
Aubrey said the UI's plan is for athletes to have breakfast, lunch and dinner served Monday through Thursday. On Fridays, the schedule calls for breakfast and lunch, with brunch and dinner available on Saturday and Sunday.
All told, it's 18 meals each week athletes have the option of consuming when the school year starts.
"We're always looking to provide better student-athlete welfare," said Jason Lener, Illinois' executive senior associate athletic director. "This is just some of what's evolving in the industry. Is it going to be an additional expense? Sure. But they're going to be provided the proper nutrition, and hopefully the program we put in place provides our student-athletes with really another benefit."
Lener didn't disclose how much the implementation of this will cost the university, but said it's a seven-figure investment.
Nicole Breece is all for the new rules. The junior midfielder on the Illinois women's soccer team had a balancing act to carry out this past spring: class, followed by practice, followed by another class.
All centered around time usually reserved for lunch.
"I could maybe get a quick meal somewhere after practice and on my way to class," Breece said, "but not all the time."
Incoming freshmen have faced similar issues this summer.
Michael Finke and Leron Black, John Groce's prized recruits, might stay after a summer workout at the Ubben Basketball Complex to get in extra work.
But by the time the roommates arrive back at Bromley Hall, they might have missed a meal.
"There have been multiple times a week where he's at Ubben and he gets back to the dorm, and there's no food left, so he and Leron head to Subway," said Jeff Finke, Michael's father, himself a former two-sport Illini athlete almost 25 years ago. "For them to be able to have structured meals and unlimited food is going to be great for their bodies."
Aubrey has been working closely with UI athletic officials the past two months — and she's far from finished. She said her department plans to consult with the head dietitian of each sport, along with Chelsea Burkart, UI athletics' director of sports nutrition, on what food to prepare.
"Ultimately, what it comes down to is to have an athlete eat in a manner that is very helpful that fuels their performance," Aubrey said. "By making it really convenient, we're going to have a higher rate of participation in the meals. We're really hopeful that we'll see this."
UConn basketball star Shabazz Napier made national news during the Final Four when he complained to reporters about going to bed hungry. Less than two weeks later, new NCAA legislation was OK'd.
Pure coincidence, according to Mary Mulvenna.
Mulvenna, assistant commissioner of the America East Conference, chaired the legislative council committee the NCAA had exploring the issue.
"We pretty much had a good feel as to where we were going with this decision in January after studying it," she said.
How equitable the food athletes are served is at universities across the country will play itself out in the next months and years.
"Where there might be a vast difference in resources compared to what the Big Ten has, we're going to try to meet the needs of our student-athletes," Mulvenna said. "The big-resource institutions are going to take a larger hit, though, in terms of finances."
It appears the NCAA will leave the menus and snack offerings up to the schools.
"Schools can choose to feed their student-athletes at their discretion," said Michelle Brutlag Hosick, the NCAA's associate director of public and media relations. "Athletic department officials at each school must decide how to implement the rule on their campus."
On days of games, meets or matches, Illinois will provide athletes with to-go meals. Housing and Dining Services will handle the cooking, and consult with each team when it comes to which snacks are served and when and where athletes can get them.
"We're going to manage the snacks out of our own fueling stations and high-traffic areas where they spend a lot of time," Lener said.
Besides planning what the meals will consist of — with plenty of input from athletics — Aubrey said no definite set times have been established for breakfast, lunch and dinner hours.
"We're finalizing menus," she said. "We just want to make sure it meets their expectations."
Breece is a fan of the new rules — especially the part about all athletes being afforded the same opportunities when it comes to dining options.
"If you're a freshman in the dorms and out of meals on your meal plan — or if you live off-campus but don't know when you're going to be able to grocery shop next — knowing you have meals provided will be nice," Breece said. "Football and basketball obviously bring in the most revenue, but we're still training just as hard as they are. It's good to see them expand this to everyone else."
Aubrey isn't too concerned about the new rules overtaxing her staff. The staff at the Varsity Room plans to assist her team in meal preparation, as well.
"The way we look at is we already feed 9,000 students a day," she said. "What's another 500?"