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What Exactly is a National Letter of Intent?

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With national signing day less than one short day away, NCAA men’s water polo coaches are on the edge of their seats with anticipation… Oh, tomorrow is also signing day for NCAA football if that’s your kind of thing. Most people have heard about signing day, but few actually have seen what a National Letter of Intent (NLI) looks like. Let’s examine the document and try to make sense of the wording.

For reference, you can view the actual document here. (Thanks to Darren Rovell for the link)

The document is 3-pages in length and starts out with a bold heading: “Do not sign prior to 7 a.m local time.” Not sure why that’s important, but evidently important enough to be typed in bold.  After that the player places an “X” next to the sport that they are signing on to participate in, and are asked to please read the complete document.

They might as well peruse the document, but it really doesn’t make much of a difference. While the letter clearly states that it is a “voluntary program” it more or less has to be signed in order to guarantee your place on the team. The remainder of the first page and the entire second page is made up of 12 data points that explain what the student-athlete is agreeing to.

The first point explains that the student-athlete will be attending a 4-year institution and be a full-time student. It also lays out the transfer student related exceptions.

The second point guarantees that a scholarship offer will accompany the NLI and include all of the related details. What is interesting to realize and what many people don’t know is that scholarships are renewed on a year-to-year basis. If the school chooses not to renew the scholarship that action releases the student-athlete from the NLI. That choice is made by the school and is what is meant when a report is released saying that “X player has been released from their scholarship and is free to transfer without penalty.” There was an addendum to the second point stating that if the player signs a professional contract in the same sport, they are still bound by the NLI in all sports.

Point three states what requirements must be fulfilled in order to satisfy the NLI. Generally this is one year of successful attendance at the school with whom they signed.

Point four outlines the penalty for transferring before completing a full year. In this case it is one full academic year at the new school and the loss of one year of eligibility.

Point five explains the difference between early signing period and actual signing period and prohibits student-athletes from signing in the early period. This is to restrict any teams from unfair practice advantage. There is also a provision stating that if a student-athlete signs an NLI in another sport, they can’t participate in football until after the official signing period. This is to stop football programs from signing players in basketball and having them play football, which would give the football program a 5 month jump on everyone else with regards to that player.

Point six explains the release and appeal process in the event that the student-athlete wants to be released from their NLI.

Point seven outlines the factors that can nullify the NLI. National Letters of Intent are very one-sided contracts. The schools can effectively reject a player for any or no reason free of charge. The player on the other hand can be handily penalized if they decide that they made the wrong choice in schools. For example the first factor that can nullify an NLI is the admissions requirement. Schools can deny the student-athlete admission to the school, thus nullifying the NLI. Each school has a given number of scholarships allotted to them. If a school receives an NLI from a player that would fill their available scholarships, but then a player that they like better comes along, the school can simply deny admission to the first player free of charge. On the flip-side, if they player signs with a school and later receives an offer from a better school, they cannot immediately transfer without having to sit out a year and losing a year of their eligibility. Other factors that nullify the NLI are: failure to be cleared by the NCAA clearing house, failing to attend school, military service, recruiting rules violations, and if the sport is discontinued by the school.

Point eight restricts other schools from recruiting a player who has signed an NLI to a different institution.

Point nine gives the student-athlete 14 days to sign both the NLI and the scholarship papers. Failure to do so will nullify both contracts.

Point ten sets the statute of limitations at four years from the date of signature.

Points eleven and twelve are based around coaching. Eleven binds the student-athlete to the institution despite any coaching changes. The player is signing with the school, not the coach. Twelve bans coaches or parties related to the school to be present at the time of signing and outlines the process for the NLI to be received.

After that the player fills out the third page, signs it, has their parent or legal guardian sign it, and then returns it to the institution for processing with the NCAA. It is a pretty cut and dry process filled mostly with common sense. That said, it’s surprising that the transfer rules have not been examined nor revised considering how one-sided they are. The NLI transfer rules have to do with transferring prior to completing one full academic year, NCAA rules after that period still require the athlete to sit out an academic year, but they don’t lose a year of eligibility. I understand the NCAA’s position that they don’t want players transferring wherever they please at the drop of a hat, but you would think there would be some sort of out-clauses that could trigger a player’s immediate release from the NLI contract.


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