The National Letter of (Bad) Intent

National Signing Day has become a national holiday for college football and basketball coaches, players and especially fans. It’s great to celebrate new blood coming into the program. But those who care about athletes and fairness should remember that the event that triggers the celebration is the signing of the National Letter of Intent, a horribly one-sided agreement that binds player to the school.

Most elite high school players the NLI without questioning exactly what they’re getting themselves into. They don’t read the fine print. They don’t consult attorneys. They just sign on the dotted line, put on the school cap and smile for the cameras. I have argued that the NLI should either be abolished or, at the least, rewritten.

Let’s take a closer look:

Background of the National Letter of Intent

The National Letter of Intent (NLI) is an agreement that heavily favors athletic departments over recruits. Many lawyers believe the NLI is what can legally be defined as a “contract of adhesion,” which is “a standard-form contract prepared by one party, to be signed by the party in a weaker position…who adheres to the contract with little choice about the terms.” Technically, the NLI is a voluntary program, but unless an athlete is a superstar, he or she does not have market power to dictate terms of enrollment. Sign on the dotted line or risk losing the scholarship offer.

The NLI program was founded in 1964. From 1995 through 2006, it was administered by the Southeastern Conference. In 2007, the NCAA took over administration of the NLI. Certainly, the more “student-athlete friendly” NCAA would bring the NLI into the 21st Century. But then-NCAA president Myles Brand, talking like a commissioner representing a group of professional sports owners, said, “We’re just there to reconcile the books. We send out the letters, we collect the information and we turn it over to the schools. So we’re doing the paperwork, we’re not running it.” When it comes to the NCAA, I’ve always said the buck
stops nowhere.

Minors (under 18 years of age) cannot sign a legally valid contract, so the NCAA/NLI devised a clever way to circumvent: They require a parent or guardian is to sign (unless they are over 21 years of age). Lawyers I have consulted believe minors who sign the NLI have a good case to void their NLI if they wanted to back out. Right now, the mother of Alex Collins is refusing to sign her son’s NLI. He wants to attend Arkansas, but she wants him to stay closer to home.) His mother reportedly hired a lawyer to represent the “family’s interests.” Stay tuned.

The NLI guarantees a player a grant-in-aid (athletic scholarship), but provides athletic departments with the ability to wiggle out of their commitment (the NLI is subject to the athlete being admitted into the university). Provision No. 11 of the NLI states that players agree they are signing with the school, not the individual sports program, even if the actual recruiting often reflects the opposite.

Some suggest schools are providing more releases today than in the past, especially after a coaching change occurs. However, for players who want out of the NLI, they remain at the mercy of the school and the new coach.

Revolutionizing the NLI

In reality, one athlete will not change the system. We need dozens of athletes, parents and the media talking about it. Better yet, we need top college prospects to threaten to not sign the Letter…at least not in its current form.

I’ve always said, I’m not against the NLI. I’m against its onerous provisions. Rewrite it so that is fair to both parties–and I’ll be the first one to endorse it.

If I had the opportunity to negotiate on behalf of student-athletes, here’s what I would ask to change:

A notice that NCAA rules now allow multi-year scholarships, rather than the 1-year, renewable scholarship that has been in place since the 1970s. I recently asked a D-1 coach if he gave any multi-year scholarships to recruits. He said no. Why? Because no player has ever asked. So ask!!! (This is yet-another reason college athletes need representation.)

Get rid of the first-person singular. This is an agreement between two parties with obligations on both sides. It should not be called the National Letter of Intent, but something like the National Student-Athlete Agreement.

If a player wants to sign with a particular school, he can make his commitment subject to two coaches that he designates remaining on staff for his freshman year (e.g., the head coach and the coach most responsible for his recruitment).

If a player decides he or she wants to attend another institution due to a coaching change, he may do so without strings attached (e.g., a release stipulating that a player may not attend a specific school).

If a player is offered a scholarship, but is subsequently not admitted as a student, that program should lose a scholarship for one year. In addition, if a player in this situation does not receive a scholarship, the school agrees to pay his or tuition and room and board for one year to attend prep school, community college or university. (Wouldn’t that make coaches think twice about offering a scholarship to an athlete who is not a sure thing to be admitted?)

If a player who signed an NLI is found guilty of a felony crime, the athletic department and school make revoke the scholarship without penalty.

What do you think? Let me know.

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Marc Isenberg

Marc Isenberg

Nationally-recognized athlete advocate for high school, college and pro athletes. A national columnist for Basketball Times, Marc is a frequent speaker at elite basketball camps and athletic programs and teams, including UCLA, RbkU and the Orlando Magic. In 2012, Marc, with Nolan Smith of the Portland Trail Blazers, founded Hoops Family , an organization devoted to educating and mentoring basketball players—and advocating on their behalf.