In terms of pound-for-pound controversy, the National Letter of Intent might be the undisputed champ in college athletics. The NCAA’s Division I manual attracts more complaints, but it’s hundreds of pages vs. the three that make up the NLI. And while the Division I manual attracts constructive criticism and recommendations, more people are of the opinion that the NLI simply sucks.
The NLI is useful because it offers the pinnacle of ending a prospective student-athlete’s recruitment. And the core of the NLI’s bargain, at least in theory, is sound. In exchange for committing to attend a school for one academic year and give it a fair shake, the student-athlete receives at least some financial assistance to attend the school. But the devil is in the details and it’s the details that threaten the NLIs relevancy.
1. Bring the NLI under the NCAA’s umbrella.
Right now if you wanted to change the NLI, you have to go through something of a guessing game to know who you need to talk to. The Conference Commissioners Association controls the terms of the agreement. The NCAA Eligibility Center administers the NLI program. And the NCAA members can pass legislation that changes what happens when an NLI is signed.
The NLI should be brought under one roof and be run by the NCAA. The terms of the agreement could be handled by the Recruiting Cabinet, which is also the source of most of the legislation related to the NLI already. And the Eligibility Center could continue in its role as the administrator of the program.
2. Provide more options to formally end recruitment.
Right now a prospect has many ways to informally or unofficially end their recruitment. Verbal commitments and signing an athletic scholarship agreement are considered the end of recruiting in some cases, but not all. In these situations, the prospect and the institution are not always in agreement that recruiting is over.
A fix would be to split the two primary functions of the NLI, the recruiting ban and the NLI penalty, into two separate agreements. That would create a written commitment, so to speak. I’d make it a nonbinding agreement between prospect and institution which allows the institution to contact the prospect without restriction and prevents other schools from hassling the prospect, but which can be cancelled at any time. That allows the NLI itself to be simply about the financial commitment to a prospect and the prospect’s obligation.
3. Expand Section 7-f.
Section 7-f of the NLI states:
Recruiting Rules Violation. If eligibility reinstatement by the NCAA student-athlete reinstatement staff is necessary due to NCAA and/or conference recruiting rules violations, the institution must notify me that I have an option to have the NLI declared null and void due to the rules violation. It is my decision to have the NLI remain valid or to have the NLI declared null and void, permitting me to be recruited and not be subject to NLI penalties.
That clause could be used in a variety of ways to provide outs for prospects in certain scenarios. The best example might be in instances where a school have oversigned. Programs who have oversigned could be required to offer a release to prospects from the NLI, allowing them to be recruited again while still holding a binding scholarship offer from the first school.
4. Provide more benefits for signing the NLI.
Right now, a prospect gains relatively little for signing the NLI vs. signing just an athletic scholarship. In exchange for committing to the institution for a year, the prospect could receive something a little more.
One idea that has been thrown out is that prospects who sign NLIs could receive scholarships for longer than one year. Maybe not a six-year guaranteed scholarship that can be extended for grad school, but anything from two years through the first bachelor’s degree would be in the realm of possibility if the NCAA allowed (or was required to allow) multi-year scholarships.
Another idea would be increased support prior to enrollment for prospects who sign. Perhaps prospects who sign could receive expenses to enroll at the institution, or the institution could pay for some educational expenses like SAT or ACT registration, currently prohibited by Bylaw 184.108.40.206.3.2. Or in other words, the institution that commits to the prospect has the tools to help them get eligible and enrolled.
5. Provide prospects with rewards for completing the NLI.
Right now, the sole incentive for a prospect to comply with a signed NLI is a stick: the NLI’s Basic Penalty:
Basic Penalty. I understand that if I do not attend the institution named in this document for one full academic year and I enroll in another institution participating in the NLI program, I may not compete in intercollegiate athletics until I have completed one full academic year in residence at the latter institution. Further, I understand I shall be charged with the loss of one season of intercollegiate athletics competition in all sports. This is in addition to any seasons of competition expended at any institution.
How about adding a carrot as well? For instance, in sports that cannot use the one-time transfer exception (basketball, football, ice hockey and baseball), student-athletes who satisfy the NLI by attending the school for one academic year could use the provision that allows for free transfers in other sports. The student-athlete has given the school a fair chance, and could be allowed to leave and compete immediately somewhere else.
Another possibility would be to limit the ability of an institution to withhold permission to contact or use of the one-time transfer exception from a student-athlete. Less drastic would be to give NLI signees an appeal outside of the institution if either of the “releases” are denied or if the scholarship is cancelled. The logic for the former is the same as above. The reason for the latter is that when a prospect signs an NLI, institutional discretion is given up, and that could be extended further into the agreement.
The goal of all these reforms would be to create a system that can respond more quickly to change, and would create a more fluid market. With different options like a written commitment, athletic scholarship, and the current NLI, institutions and prospects would need to negotiate down to a specific agreement rather than just accepting the standard scholarship and NLI then sorting it out down the road.
The opinions expressed on this blog are the author’s and the author’s alone, and are not endorsed by the NCAA or any NCAA member institution or conference. This blog is not a substitute for a compliance office.