Proud parents. Beaming high schoolers. Embracing teammates. Across the country this week, thousands of young athletes made their college choices official with the strokes of pens.
But among the approximately 14,000 prospective student-athletes who signed a National Letter of Intent during the past week, a 17-year-old high school volleyball player in a Seattle suburb made a small but notable splash of history.
Jessica Davis, a senior at Emerald Ridge High School in South Hill, Washington, signed Tuesday to compete in volleyball for Division II University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. She is the great-granddaughter of J. William Davis, a long-ago professor of government at Texas Tech University, known as the father of the NLI.
“It’s kind of funny,” Jessica Davis said. “We’re learning in my sports medicine class right now about how women used to not be able to play sports in college, but then Title IX happened. And now I get to sign a National Letter of Intent.”
The NLI is a binding agreement between a prospective student-athlete and an NCAA school that participates in the NLI program. The student agrees to attend the school full-time for one academic year, and the school agrees to fund, at a minimum, a one-year athletics scholarship.
When a group of seven conferences chaired by J. William Davis launched the NLI in 1964, 68 schools participated, and the NLI was intended mostly for football players. Today, that number has grown to include 644 colleges and universities, and the program has also blossomed to include men and women in all NCAA-sponsored sports in Divisions I and II.
Beyond the contractual obligations inherent with the NLI, the program has become known for the celebratory moments it provides for the 2 percent of high school athletes who succeed at earning college athletics scholarships.
In fact, the celebrations are now such a fixture of high school athletics that Division III schools – which do not provide scholarships based on participation in sports – might begin allowing their prospective student-athletes to sign official celebratory letters. This decision, expected to be made in January, would not make Division III schools participants in the NLI, but the signing ceremonies would mimic the NLI tradition.
The NLI was introduced in order to curb intensive recruiting that emerged in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when increased television exposure made college sports a national phenomenon. At the time, stories emerged of schools luring away football players even after they had enrolled at another college or university.
Now in its 50th year, daily operations of the NLI are managed by the NCAA, while the Collegiate Commissioners Association oversees the program. The NLI is voluntary; no prospective student-athlete is required to sign, and no NCAA college or university is required to participate.
“For the highly, highly recruited kids, it’s a godsend,” said Tom Yeager, commissioner of the Colonial Athletic Association. “It has worked for the vast majority of young men and women who have signed it. Recruiting is a pressure-packed thing, and the NLI is a ceasefire on recruiting.”
For the Davis family, the NLI has always been more personal. Jessica is the first in her family to sign the document made possible by her great-grandfather. And while the photo that circulated on Twitter after her signing looked much like many of the others – a smiling high school volleyball player wearing the sweatshirt of a college that felt like home as soon as she visited campus – for the Davises, the signing meant something more.
“It just shows the importance of family,” said Jessica’s father, Kyle. “She never met my grandfather. But you never know what your past can do for you.”