To: The top 100 football players in the recruiting class of 2014
Re: The national letter of intent
For the next few months college coaches will be reaching out to you—in person, by phone, through Facebook—to sign with their schools. And if all goes well, you'll pick one you like. Just remember: You don't have to sign every form they shove in front of you. In fact, you shouldn't.
By now you are likely aware of the case of Eddie Vanderdoes. A year ago the five-star defensive tackle from Auburn, Calif., was in your shoes as one of the nation's top recruits, and in February he signed an athletics-aid agreement (NCAA-speak for scholarship offer) as well as a national letter of intent to play for Notre Dame. But on June 4 Vanderdoes announced that "circumstances have changed for me and my family" and that he was instead enrolling at UCLA. Brian Kelly, coach of the Fighting Irish, allowed that the recruit could go to whatever school he wanted, but Notre Dame would not release him from his NLI. So now Vanderdoes is faced with losing one of his four years of collegiate eligibility—not a redshirt year, but an actual season of football—because he signed the worst contract in American sports.
Last week, after I wrote about Vanderdoes's situation on SI.com, the father of a top 50 recruit sent me a message on Facebook. "I wish we'd known about the NLI and its lack of need before [our son] signed," he wrote. The fact is, schools don't always educate parents about the document and its provisions because if they did, parents might not allow their sons to sign.
The earliest version of the NLI was created in 1964 as a way of standardizing the recruiting process across conferences. Produced by the Collegiate Commissioners Association and administered by the NCAA, it appears to be a fair quid pro quo: In exchange for a one-year scholarship from a school (which is bound by NCAA rules regarding the number of free rides it can give and thus wants firm commitments) the player relinquishes his right to be recruited elsewhere. The document is binding because every participating FBS member honors the process.
In practice, the NLI protects millionaire coaches by locking in their hard-earned stars—but it doesn't force schools to uphold their end of the deal. In 2010, when LSU oversigned and ended up with more scholarship recruits than the NCAA allows, lineman Elliott Porter, who had already signed an NLI, was sent packing. (He went to Kentucky instead, then lost a year transferring back to LSU.) Where the athlete needed protection, the NLI failed; the school lost nothing.
In the case of Vanderdoes, who feels "a strong need to remain close to home," the NLI offered a stiff penalty—25% of his eligibility—to encourage him to stick with South Bend. Notre Dame officials lifted the NLI's ban on recruiting so that Vanderdoes could talk to other schools, but they wouldn't relent on the penalty; doing so might tempt other signees to break their pledges. (Vanderdoes is appealing.)
To be clear: A recruit with only a few offers should sign an NLI; he has no leverage not to. But you, the best of the best, are likely facing dozens of offers. And once you set foot on campus, your school and the NCAA will own your likeness and eligibility. Don't surrender your leverage until you absolutely must.
It is no accident that universities routinely jettison assistants within a week of national signing day—Oklahoma alone fired three this year—or that coaches often leave for greener pastures right around that time. In 2012, New Mexico defensive coordinator Ron West left for Arizona State just after signing day; then, on Feb. 14 of this year, a week after his recruits were committed, he moved on again, to North Carolina. Were his recruits happy? Of course not. But because they'd signed the NLI, they were stuck.
You don't have to get stuck. Follow the lead of some of the nation's top basketball recruits by not signing the NLI, instead inking only the athletics-aid agreement. Then, when your team fires the assistant who reeled you in—or he walks away on his own—the school risks losing you, too.
It won't work everywhere. Alabama's Nick Saban will have plenty of prospects willing to sign anything. And Arizona's Rich Rodriguez is bound by a school rule to secure NLIs. But if enough of you refuse, other coaches will demand a more palatable letter. You, meanwhile, will be trailblazers: You'll have struck a blow for 18-year-olds against the multibillion-dollar business of college football.
Sign on the dotted line and you just might lose a year of eligibility.
ED SZCZEPANSKI/USA TODAY SPORTS