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Food rule leaves good taste for players

EUGENE — The Oregon football team is looking forward to having its bagel and eating cream cheese, too.

"Most of these guys are not exactly Betty Crocker," offensive coordinator Scott Frost said after news broke last week that the NCAA plans to expand meal allowance for players. "It's great for them to have this available to them all the time."

Inside the cafeteria at the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex, a diner-style neon sign reads:

"Eat your enemies and the other food groups."

The NCAA was more friend than perceived foe last week when its legislative council announced that Division I student-athletes can receive unlimited meals and snacks in conjunction with their athletics participation.

The rule, which applies to walk-ons as well as scholarship players, is expected to be made official by the board of directors on Thursday.

"Finally, a little common sense at play," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said.

NCAA president Mark Emmert and his organization are under siege with the Ed O'Bannon case set to begin this summer, the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board ruling that Northwestern football players are employees with the right to unionize and major conferences pushing to provide players with enough funds to cover full cost of attendance.

The Ducks don't seem to be eager to pile on the NCAA as they emerge from Oregon's lavish facilities this spring.

The feeling in the locker room is that positive changes are on the horizon and being able to break bread together more often as a team in 2014 is a good start.

"We already get a lot of things, we're very thankful for everything and that's just something that we can be even more thankful of," center Hroniss Grasu said. "Especially the walk-ons."

Scholarship players currently can have one specially prepared "training table" meal every day, in addition to a variety of snack foods and drinks before and after practices and competitions. Walk-ons are required to pay for meals in order to participate.

Moving forward, scholarship and walk-on players will be able to eat together and meals can be provided year-round. Most players remain on campus to work out during the summer.

"It didn't really make any kind of sense how scholarship players could eat but the walk-on players, who put in just as much work, even more work in some cases, and then they would have to go home hungry," left tackle Tyler Johnstone said. "It didn't really make a lot of sense to any of us. That's huge for them.

"We're excited to be able to eat with the entire team finally."

Grasu said there's almost a feeling of guilt when the walk-ons exit the facility on an empty stomach.

"We're always coming out of the elevator and we're going to the cafeteria and the walk-ons are walking outside," Grasu said. "It's hard to see that."

Taylor Alie, who was a scout-team quarterback as a freshman last season, uses his walk-on status as motivation.

Of course, the former Sheldon High standout isn't going to turn down a free meal.

"Usually after meetings everyone will come down and go to the food, and all of the walk-ons will kind of leave. It's a little awkward, I guess you could say, but it fuels the fire to earn a spot, to earn a scholarship," Alie said. "Now I think people are going to eat here and not have to spend their money elsewhere and have a lot of meals with good nutrition."

During the men's basketball Final Four earlier this month, UConn star Shabazz Napier made headlines after saying he went to bed "starving" because he could not afford to pay for food.

Oregon's football players said its all about making smart choices. Having more meals and snacks available will help stretch their scholarship budget.

"We get about $1,200 a month on scholarship. After your living expenses, bills, grocery shopping, it's pretty much: Do you want to have fun or do you want to eat?" Johnstone said. "That's what you've kind of got to decide on. Fun wins about half the time."

Like many college students, Johnstone has had to ask his parents for extra money at times. Grasu joked that his scholarship provides plenty of money to live on unless he spends too much at the golf course.

But there are players on the team who don't have anything to live on beyond what Oregon provides.

"It has been tough for some of those guys," running backs coach Gary Campbell said. "Most of those guys won't cook for themselves, so they don't get square meals. They'll go to McDonald's and get a hamburger here or there, french fries.

"They're not getting the proper vegetables, so their diet is just not as balanced as it should be. To have them on training table just means the world to get the proper nutrition."

To his credit, Emmert admits parts of the NCAA's voluminous rulebook don't make sense.

"The biggest problem was, the NCAA has historically had all kinds of, I don't know how to describe it ... dumb rules about food," Emmert told ESPN. "The infamous one is you can provide between meals a snack, but you can't provide a meal. Well, then you've got to define what's the difference between a snack and a meal?

"So it was literally the case that a bagel was defined as a snack — unless you put cream cheese on it. Now it becomes a meal. That's absurd."