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To sign or not to sign

For recruits, Letters of Intent are not the best option

Posted: Wednesday November 14, 2007 11:30AM; Updated: Wednesday November 14, 2007 4:16PM
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From Nov. 14 through Nov. 21, thousands of college basketball recruits will sign a National Letter of Intent. However, it may not be in their best interests.
From Nov. 14 through Nov. 21, thousands of college basketball recruits will sign a National Letter of Intent. However, it may not be in their best interests.

Imagine that you are looking for a job. You are a very sought-after candidate, and after sifting through several generous offers from prominent companies, you make your choice.

When you inform your future employer, they say they are thrilled. Then they ask you to sign a contract. You are told that you will not be able to negotiate, even if you find the provisions overly restrictive. Nor has the document been collectively bargained by a union to which you belong. What's more, this contract is completely voluntary -- you can still have the job even if you don't sign it. But if you sign and something big changes (say, your company gets into legal trouble or the boss you thought you were going to work for leaves), you can't get out of the deal unless the company wants to let you out of it.

Would you sign?

Of course you wouldn't.

Yet, beginning today and lasting through next Wednesday, hundreds of high school seniors will sign National Letters of Intent to play men's college basketball. Tens of thousands more will sign letters during the current academic year. For the most part, they will not ask whether they have to sign the letters, or whether it's a good deal for them, or whether the letter can be modified to their benefit. They will simply sign because, well, that's what everybody does.

How many of those prospects even know the NLI is completely voluntary? Or that it is unfairly tilted in favor of the schools? And get this: The NLI program is not even run by the NCAA. It is instead run by the Collegiate Commissioners Association. Last month, the NCAA's Eligibility Center accepted the responsibility to administer the NLI but, as NCAA president Myles Brand told me, "We're just there to reconcile the books. We send out the letters, we collect the information and we turn it over to the schools. So we're doing the paperwork, we're not running it."

This is not to say the athlete gets no benefits whatsoever from signing the NLI. The agreement effectively ends the recruiting process because once the athletes sign, other schools are prohibited from recruiting them. Also, while the letter binds that athlete to a school, it also binds the school to the athlete. If there were no NLI, the school could renege on its promise of a scholarship and just give it to someone else. Since most signees are minors, a parent or guardian is required to sign the letter.

Still, though the letter promises a scholarship for one year, it can be revoked if a student is rejected by a school's admissions department. That opens the possibility that if a coach is able to sign a better player, the school can cut the first player loose and say it was for academic reasons. (Don't think that doesn't happen.) So if a player's lawyer were negotiating on his behalf, the first thing he'd want to do is put a little more teeth behind the school's commitment, or at least force the school to be more specific about what would be required to gain admission.

Then there's provision No. 19 called "Coaching Changes". (To get the full text of the NLI and learn more about it, go here.) The clause reads, "I understand I have signed this NLI with the institution and not for a particular sport or individual. If the coach leaves the institution or the sports program (or is not retained), 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."

This is unfair, farcical even. For the vast majority of recruits, the coach is the number one consideration in deciding where to go to school. If the coach leaves, the player should be free to choose another school without penalty. The same should be true if the school gets hit with NCAA sanctions, but as of now the athlete is bound by the NLI even in that circumstance.

Furthermore, if an athlete breaks his agreement and attends a different school than the one he signed with, not only does he have to sit out a full year without playing, but he loses a year of eligibility as well. When he resumes his playing career somewhere else, he's a sophomore. In my imaginary negotiation, the player's lawyer would certainly ask the school at least to strike the part about losing a year of eligibility. Since the NLI is a one-year contract, it makes no sense for it to carry what is essentially a two-year penalty.

If the NLI seems one-sided, perhaps it's because the players have never had a voice in its composition or administration. The NLI program was founded in 1964 by a faculty and athletics representative from Texas Tech. In 1995, the program was taken over by the Southeastern Conference, with former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer serving as chair of the NLI Steering Committee. That committee now includes five conference commissioners, but it does not include a single student-athlete or someone to represent the student-athletes -- interests. Nor is any student-athlete invited to sit on the NLI's appeals committee.

It's true that often times when a player wants to get out of his Letter of Intent, the school grants his request even though it technically doesn't have to. Perhaps it's because the schools are generous at heart. Or, maybe they suspect the NLI would never withstand a legal challenge. No athlete has ever sued a school for declining to release him from an NLI, but Pete Rush, a Chicago-based lawyer who represented Jeremy Bloom in his lawsuit against the NCAA, says the legality of the NLI could be challenged on the grounds of "unconscionability." Here's the legal definition: "A contract is 'unconscionable' if it did not result from real bargaining between parties who had freedom of choice and understanding and ability to negotiate in a meaningful fashion."

Mike Slive, the SEC commissioner who is a former chair of the NLI steering committee, points out that every year some 30,000 athletes sign national letters of intent, yet last year only 350 or so requested a release. The NLI steering committee heard around two dozen cases. But the main job of lawyers and agents is to prepare for the very small chance that something will go awry and hurt their client. That's what negotiations are for.

I'm not saying the administrators who created the NLI bear ill intentions toward the athletes who sign them. Nor am I suggesting that there is no legitimate reason for such a letter to exist. But until improvements are made, and until the athletes are given a say in the letter's contents, my advice to recruits is, Don't sign. You can get yourself a better deal.