Many student-athletes were already food-insecure. COVID-19 could make it worse.

Nearly one-fourth of all NCAA Division I student-athletes were food-insecure in fall 2019, and almost 14 percent had experienced homelessness in the previous year, according to a new report from the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University. The survey results highlight challenges that likely have worsened as the COVID-19 pandemic has removed student-athletes from their campuses, meal plans, and training tables, Sports Illustrated reports.

How widespread is food and housing insecurity among student-athletes?

Media outlets have periodically documented incidents of housing and food insecurity among student-athletes, but the new Hope Center report, titled “Hungry to Win,” offers an early attempt to quantify its prevalence. The research looks at survey responses from 3,506 student-athletes who participated in the most recent #RealCollege survey, administered between August and October 2019. The responses span a variety of institutions, including 13 Division I, 11 Division II, 24 Division III, and 124 two-year schools.

Twenty-three percent of student-athletes at four-year colleges and 39 percent of student -athletes at two-year colleges reported being food-insecure in the 30 days prior to the survey. Asked about housing, 14 percent of student-athletes at four-year colleges and 20 percent of those at two-year colleges reported experiencing homelessness in the prior year.

“There’s a part of me that really thought, though, that athletes get so much extra attention that they really would be substantially less likely to deal with these problems, and I was really wrong,” Hope Center founder Sara Goldrick-Rab told Sports Illustrated.

Student-athletes balancing regulations with basic needs

Some student-athletes, especially those at Division I schools, receive full athletics scholarships and access to generous meal plans. However, 40 percent of the nation’s 460,000 NCAA student-athletes receive no athletics scholarships at all, and most of the remainder receive only partial scholarships.

“Whether or not student-athletes are on full scholarship or play for Division I, they are subject to extensive demands on their time, and face the same nutritional needs,” the researchers note. The time-consuming nature of athletics participation can present a key hurdle. NCAA rules allow student-athletes to work, provided their compensation aligns with certain guidelines, but they often struggle to find the time or may be discouraged by coaches from working during the months that their sports compete.

Restrictions make additional aid risky amid pandemic

“For most athletes, even receiving help is complicated,” Sports Illustrated writes, given that to maintain amateur status with the NCAA, student-athletes “must be careful not to accept money or help that could be construed as resulting from [their] status as an athlete.” The Hope Center tells of former Baylor University running back Silas Nacita, who was homeless but lost his eligibility to play football for the college after accepting unapproved housing, and former UCLA linebacker Donnie Edwards, who ended up paying a penalty after accepting groceries during a period of food-insecurity.

That pressure to not run afoul of eligibility guidelines has made student-athletes especially vulnerable during the coronavirus pandemic. University of Mississippi linebacker Sam Williams—who, until COVID-19 forced him to relocate, relied on a meal plan to eat five or six meals daily on campus to meet performance-level nutritional needs—recently wrote about this struggle on Twitter. Williams, who intends to play football again in the fall, says he lacks the money to buy enough food but also that “the outcome [of a violation] is bigger than the pandemic.”

Since Williams shared his story, the University of Mississippi has worked with its compliance office and arranged to provide food-insecure athletes with a weekly $105 meal card for use at fast-casual restaurants.

Athletics directors nationwide, meanwhile, are voicing concerns that the current pandemic and resulting revenue losses from canceled athletics events could further weaken institutions’ ability to provide scholarships and support for student-athletes. One-third of athletics directors from FBS schools surveyed recently by Lead1 Association said they think their programs will see revenues fall by at least 30 percent for the 2020-21 academic year.

Related: NCAA extends eligibility for spring athletes, but scholarships may not keep up >

More in-depth data to come

Calling its report just “a first look at the challenge” of basic needs insecurity among student-athletes, the Hope Center says it will collect additional data next year to better understand trends within individual sports and levels of competition. “In the midst of this pandemic, I know that everybody’s worried about whether there’s going to be a football season this fall, but there’s a real chance that these athletes become completely disconnected [from their campus support systems],” Goldrick-Rab said.

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