10 Things to Know Before Before Signing an NLI
Kids are recruited by college athletic programs earlier than ever, and the recent addition of the Early Signing Period There is a lot of excitement surrounding a prospective college athlete’s verbal commitment to attend a certain university, and there is even more pomp and circumstance surrounding a highly recruited prospective college athlete’s “signing day”. Even for those who do not sit in front of a table with five hats and announce the school of choice on national television, signing a commitment letter and accompanying athletic financial aid letter agreement is a big deal (and deserves major congratulations!). Many people have at least heard about the document itself that these athletes sign - the National Letter of Intent (NLI) - but many may not know exactly how it works within the college recruitment process and the overall college athlete experience, generally.
In the spirit of the still controversial Early Signing Period for NCAA Division I Football quickly approaching and taking place December 19-21, here are 10 things prospective college athletes and their families or guardians should know before signing an NLI as well as fans and enthusiasts who want to better understand the nitty-gritty procedures involved:
1. The NLI is a “voluntary program” in which NCAA member institutions and student-athletes can participate.
Indeed, the program is billed as “voluntary” for both parties to the agreement letter, for the institutions are not forced to utilize the NLI format, and the prospective college athletes are not required to sign an NLI. One can reasonably interpret that the NLI’s main purpose is to protect the school. It does not provide the protections that many prospective college athletes are seeking such as a spot on the team. Rather, one of the primary functions is to stop the recruiting processes for the signing athlete (i.e., a “recruitment prohibition” is instituted, where all other member institutions must cease recruiting the athlete once an NLI is signed with another institution) and be a means by which the institution can keep track of how many athletic scholarships it is expecting to give out. Because of these purposes in addition to the evident significant power imbalance between the parties, athletes may feel as if they are pressured into a “take-it-or-leave-it” situation unless they are a highly sought after five-star recruit who recognizes that the bargaining power may not be as disparate as it is for the large majority of prospective college athletes or, alternatively, athletes may be caught up in the excitement and honor that they rush into signing the NLI without fully considering what it entails.
Remember - this is voluntary, options are available, and there is room to negotiate protections. Prospective college athletes can take steps to minimize the risks involved in this voluntary program during the recruiting process before signing the NLI, luckily, such as working with the National College Players Association’s CAP Guarantee, to gain some protections before committing to an institution on paper!
2. There are two entities that handle the NLI Program: (1) the NCAA, and (2) the Collegiate Commissioners Association (“CCA”).
It is valuable for any athlete and the family to understand the who’s and what’s involved with the NLI Program because (a) it give insight as to who makes the rules and the form so they can look at the terms with a prudent eye and informed mind, and (b) it tells them who will be handling their matters should anything go awry in the process. Here, the NCAA, the non-profit organization regulating athletes of almost 1,300 institutions in North America, handles the daily operations of the program, and the CCA, the commissioners group that exists largely for uniformity’s sake, handles the governance oversight. That means that entities who have an interest at stake in the college athletics market and are directly tied to the other party to the NLI are making the rules and terms. Of course, the schools themselves decide what terms to propose in the athletics aid agreement, which is the document that lays out the specific and precise financial aid terms and other conditions of the agreement between the school and the prospective college athlete, but when the NCAA benefits, the schools benefit (and vice versa, in general), and that is not necessarily so when it comes to the athlete. The schools chose to be a part of the NLI Program because it tends to benefit them from start to finish, even where an athlete goes through the appellate process for something like a release from the NLI.
3. By signing an NLI, the parties enter into a binding agreement where the student-athlete agrees to attend the member institution for one academic year, full-time, and the member institution agrees to provide an athletic scholarship for one academic year.
To reiterate, a prospective college athlete is not guaranteed a spot on the team by signing a NLI. The only thing the school is promising is to give the student athletic financial aid for one academic year (two semesters or three quarters), while the student is promising to attend the school for one academic year, not just until the season is complete, regardless of whether they are given a position on the team roster. Since the NLI purpose is served after that one academic year is completed, athletes do not sign NLIs after that initial year.
4. Only certain Division I & II schools can use an NLI whereas Division III schools may want student-athletes to sign a “celebratory signing form”, and these are two very different documents.
Here is a fun fact for y’all: Of all the Division I and II schools, 657 are currently part of the NLI Program. Based on the NCAA Directory, there are 353 Division I member institutions and 318 Division II member institutions. So, the math shows that 14 member institutions do not take part in the NLI Program.
Also, as stated earlier in this article, since the school is promising to give the prospective college athlete an athletic scholarship, only schools that have athletic scholarships to give are allowed to take part in the NLI Program. Division III member institutions do not give out athletic scholarships and, therefore, cannot give its prospects NLIs. A few years ago, the Division III membership adopted a form that gives the athletes some of the celebratory feels that come with the NLI signing - the Celebratory Signing Form, a non-binding, standard, NCAA-provided form that the athlete can sign at any point after they are granted acceptance. Either party can back out of a D-III Celebratory Signing Form commitment without consequence.
5. Student-athletes who verbally committed to attend an institution are not bound to sign an NLI with that institution.
Y’all read that right. If someone gives one school a verbal commit, perhaps early on in high school, and later realizes that the school may not be the place for him or her and wants to pursue or accept another offer, the athlete can definitely do so! There is no obligation attached to a verbal commitment since it is not binding in the way a NLI is once signed. Deciding which college to attend and play for is a huge decision. So, prospective college athletes should not feel bad whatsoever if they change their mind after giving a verbal commitment because, in all honesty, the school could always back out before proposing the NLI, too.
6. Student-athletes may only sign one NLI in an academic school year, even if they receive a complete release from the first institution, unless there are “extenuating circumstances”.
The athletes are able to present a case to the NLI Policy and Review Committee, which determines whether to grant a complete release, and appeal an unfavorable determination to the NLI Appeals Committee, which makes a final binding determination. In order to receive a complete release, “extenuating circumstances” need to be presented, and needless to say, “extenuating circumstances” are far and few between. The committee itself what merits constitute extenuating on a case-by-case basis, and some reasons have included “illness of the student, illness or death of a parent or financial hardship of the student's family which prevent the student from attending the signing institution.” A case-by-case evaluation may initially seem like a detriment to the athlete because the committee does not have a precedent it is bound to follow, but it can really be a positive thing in the sense that it allows the athlete to use persuasive methods to show their case and take advantage of a vulnerable college sports entity that is currently under scrutiny in the eyes of the public opinion.
7. if a student-athlete signed an NLI with an institution and quits the team for almost any reason, the institution can cancel the athletic financial aid, and the NLI remains valid.
Translation: If the college athlete decides at some point into the season that they do not want to play the sport at that school, quitting altogether often times is not the advisable solution because (a) the athlete would likely lose the entire athletic scholarship or see it greatly reduced, (b) appealing an athletic financial aid reduction or removal can be challenging, and (c) if the athlete wants to play somewhere else, they would still be bound to the NLI terms and all relevant NCAA and conference rules regarding transfers.
8. The NLI does have a blunt “coaching change” provision.
In its own twisted little way hidden among the various provisions, the NLI does make it clear, but this fact often does not register fully before an athlete and their family makes the decision to sign with a school. The NLI states:
“I understand I have signed this NLI with the institution and not for a particular sport or coach. If a coach leaves the institution or the sports program (e.g., not retained, resigns), I remain bound by the provisions of this NLI. I understand it is not uncommon for a coach to leave his or her coaching position.“
Is this unfair? I believe it is because the school could be in a better position to know certain elements about its athletics program (e.g., a coach’s current and prospective employment position or other associated risks) that the athlete does not have access to in making the decision to sign the NLI, and the school does not have to inform the athlete of said information, technically. There is a certain subjectivity involved in evaluating the fairness of a situation. Is it unjust? It depends, for within the four-corners of the document, the relationship between the parties is clear even though it is unfair to one executing party, but justice involves a more objective basis. More than anything, this provision highlights the importance of reading every word in a contract, especially where one party does have more bargaining power than the other party, and doing whatever you need to do to comprehend an agreement to the fullest extent.
9. Coaches are not allowed to be present at the NLI signing, nor can the institution hand deliver the NLI anywhere off the institution’s campus.
Per the letter agreement:
"A coach or an institutional representative may not hand deliver this NLI off the institution's campus or be present off campus at the time I sign the NLI per NCAA rules. This NLI may be delivered by express mail, courier service, regular mail, email or facsimile. An NLI submitted to an institution electronically is permissible.”
Talk to your trusted counsel about how to go about the situation should anything to the contrary occur!
10. The NLI must be signed during very specific periods in order to be valid.
Generally speaking, the NLI and the athletics financial aid agreement must be signed within seven days of issuance, but it must be signed during the time-frames in the table below. For example, the seven-day rule does not apply during the Division I Football Early Signing Period because there are only 3 days during which a prospect can sign. If a prospective college athlete and co-signer do not sign during the respective dates below, the NLI is null and void. In other words, it would be legally ineffectual, and neither party is bound by its terms.