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Publish date: Feb 1, 2011

Signature moment: The evolution of the National Letter of Intent

By Michelle Brutlag Hosick
NCAA.org

Wednesday is National Signing Day for college football – the day transformed into a capital-letter, national holiday of sorts by media outlets hanging on every beep and buzz of athletics department fax machines nationwide.

NLI extends beyond football and basketball

Though commitments in Division I football and men’s and women’s basketball get most of the attention, more than 36,000 prospective student-athletes in all sign National Letters of Intent to attend Division I and Division II institutions annually.

About 7,000 of those national letters are signed by football players, and another 4,000 or so men’s and women’s basketball players sign. That leaves about 25,000 student-athletes in nonrevenue sports who commit to play for a particular school every year.

In fact, Wednesday is the first day of the signing period in field hockey, soccer, track and field, cross country, and men’s water polo, as well as football.  Like football, those sports don’t have an early signing period.

The basketball regular signing period begins April 13, along with all other sports not mentioned above (including baseball, volleyball, golf, swimming and lacrosse). Basketball and the other sports also have a week-long early-signing period in November. Football coaches were able to sign midyear junior college transfers from Dec. 15 to Jan. 15.

But before high schools were holding press conferences to announce the college destination of their best players, before coaches were fined for mentioning a prospect on Twitter, before recruits teased college coaches with baseball hats from different schools, the National Letter of Intent program was simply a way to end the recruiting process for high school kids who didn’t want to spend their entire senior year weighing options from coaches.

Formation

The program was created in 1964 by a group of seven conferences, chaired by J. William Davis, a retired professor and faculty athletics representative at Texas Tech. The original intention was to curb recruiting excesses that began when college sports became a national endeavor with the increased television exposure of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Stories of schools luring away a football player even after he was enrolled on another campus paint a picture of the intensity of recruiting in this period.

To stop such behavior, some conferences formed a plan to issue “letters of intent,” documents recognized only within a conference that would keep other conference coaches from recruiting a student-athlete once he declared his intent to participate at a specific school. The plan worked well within the conferences that adopted the policy, but the effect was limited because it was not national in scope. Several attempts to codify the letter of intent nationally through the NCAA failed.

The Collegiate Commissioners Association developed a voluntary inter-conference letter of intent program, operated through conference offices. The “National Letter of Intent” certified that a student-athlete would attend an institution for one academic year. The form was signed by the prospect and his parent or guardian. The institution was required to offer an award of athletics financial aid to make the letter of intent valid. Recruits were informed of the recruiting rules from that point on and told that if they didn’t hold up their end of the deal, their athletics eligibility would be limited.

Evolution

Those basic rules remain. Though the program was created to address issues in football, student-athletes in all NCAA-sponsored sports now participate. Originally, the only signing date was in May for all sports. Over time, earlier periods were established to permit recruits who make early decisions to end the recruiting process. The process also became more sport-specific, with signing periods tailored to recruiting trends in each sport that participated.

The program has expanded to more than 600 participating institutions in Divisions I and II. It is still governed by the CCA through a group of four, five-member committees (NLI Policy and Review Committee, DI Appeals Committee, DII Review Committee and DII Appeals Committee). The NCAA Eligibility Center administers the program, with Susan Peal, associate director of operations, having specific responsibility.

Discussions about moving the administration of the program to the NCAA began in 2004. Since the Eligibility Center was created to handle most issues surrounding prospective student-athletes, having the Center handle National Letter of Intent administration made sense.

Since the Eligibility Center took over, the program has made several improvements, including establishing an advisory team to offer membership feedback and the auditing of much of the NLI data. The release-request process also has been modified for efficiency and accuracy, and more guidelines have been created for consistency across conferences and institutions.

Rules

Over time, the National Letter of Intent program – and in some cases the NCAA itself – developed rules regulating what can and can’t be done before and after the signing of an NLI. Administrators also developed policies to further govern the program. A few of the rules:

  • Letters can’t be signed by a recruit before 7 a.m. (local time where the recruit is) on the first day of the signing period. This rule prevents coaches and recruits from being up at all hours, waiting at the fax machine. If a letter is submitted without a time of signature, the letter of intent is considered invalid. Peal cited an example involving a recruit from Illinois whose parents were vacationing in Hawaii on signing day. Because the letter couldn’t be signed by his parents until 7 a.m. in Hawaii, the commitment couldn’t be submitted until that time.
  • Coaches can’t talk about recruits before having a valid National Letter of Intent on file, and they can’t attend NLI signings not on an institution’s campus. Not allowing coaches to talk about the players they are recruiting avoids the “one-upmanship” that could (and previously did) occur between coaches in the recruiting process. Prohibiting their presence at signings also alleviates pressure some student-athletes say they felt when they signed. Peal said that if a signing takes place on an institution’s campus, she encourages institutions to have an administrator present in addition to a coach. The administrator can “back up the facts” if a student-athlete later appeals his National Letter of Intent and alleges he was pressured into signing by a coach.
  • In late 2008, after hearing reports of some schools placing “out clauses” in their National Letter of Intent agreements in the event of a coaching change, the NLI committee reiterated its position that additional  conditions made the NLI null and void. The committee’s policy is that the NLI is an agreement with an institution, not a coach. The fact that some schools were offering the releases and others were not created a competitive-equity issue, Peal said. “The CCA felt strongly about this issue and issued a policy that any institutions found to be providing such release agreements would have to void the NLI, and the committee would look at each case to see if other penalties are warranted,” she said. Any penalties would be considered on a case-by-case basis.
  • Recruits have 14 days to sign a National Letter of Intent from the date it is issued to them. This period allows prospects time to think about their decision. “Some kids have multiple offers in front of them, and they are still trying to decide (on the first day of the signing period,” Peal said. “Some get offers they weren’t expecting.”
  • Institutions have 21 days from receipt of a signed National Letter of Intent to file it with the conference office. Peal said this rule, dating back more than 25 years, was a result of when the documents were sent in the mail. “With electronic means today, 21 days is a long time,” she said.

Aftermath

When the hype of National Signing Day is over, some recruits change their mind. The National Letter of Intent program has a specific release process for such cases, though they are rare. Of the more than 36,000 signings last year, fewer than 700 signees requested releases – less than 2 percent. Of those, only 30 did not eventually obtain their release. None of those cases was high-profile, Peal said.

To achieve a release, a prospect must fill out paperwork and cite a specific reason for wanting to be relieved of the commitment. Some institutions grant releases without question; others have a policy that requires the recruit to appeal to the committee of commissioners. The committee generally requires some sort of extenuating circumstances before granting a release.

The basic penalty for a recruit who signs a National Letter of Intent but changes his mind about the institution is a year in residence at the next NLI institution (no competition) and a loss of one season of competition in all sports.

Because the NLI must be accompanied by a scholarship offer, the recruit has a right to that scholarship for a year, even if the institution or coach wishes to withdraw it.

National letters can also be declared invalid or null and void. An invalid NLI is usually because of a clerical error (missing full name, missing NCAA ID, etc.). An NLI that is declared null and void is generally the result of some sort of action by either the institution or the recruit, including the recruit not meeting initial-eligibility requirements or the school discontinuing the sport.

The result of both the invalid and null and void National Letter of Intent is essentially the same – no binding agreement exists. If an agreement is declared null and void, however, the recruit is not permitted to sign again during the same signing year (though he can play and compete elsewhere, just without a National Letter of Intent).