The hometown gym was packed. The never-worn hat was ready. ESPNU was broadcasting live. It was February 2015, and Roquan Smith, a blue-chip prep linebacker from Georgia, was preparing to announce his college choice on national signing day—the annual day-turned-television jamboree in which hundreds of high school recruits sign their National Letters of Intent, contracts that bind them to their future football programs.
With family and friends behind him and homemade placards featuring the names of four schools—Texas A&M, Michigan, Georgia, and the University of California, Los Angeles—arrayed on a table in front of him, Smith smiled for the camera. Thanked God. Had a buddy remove two of the placards to gin up some suspense. Reaching into a bag, he slipped on a pair of multicolored gloves, then held them aloft to signify his selection: UCLA. Onlookers cheered. Smith, per tradition, put on a Bruins ball cap. As far as school-choice ceremonies go, nothing was out of the ordinary. Except for one thing.
With national signing day once again upon us, here's some advice for the country's top high school football players: follow Smith's lead. Throw a party. Pick a hat. Enjoy some on-air shine. But absolutely, positively do not sign a National Letter of Intent (or NLI). No pen, no paper, no whirring fax machine. If you're an elite talent, you don't need to sign a letter of intent to receive an athletic scholarship. A basic financial aid agreement with the school of your choice will do.
More to the point, you'll be putting your signature on what Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated rightly calls "the worst contract in America"—a one-sided agreement that snuffs out your bargaining leverage, doesn't fully guarantee you a scholarship, and could put you and your family in a major bind if you happen to change your minds between now and the start of the college preseason.
Created by a group of college athletic conferences in the mid-1960s, NLIs were intended to make recruiting more orderly. At the time, programs were poaching athletes from one another even after they had enrolled in classes; athletes were deluged with offers and attention throughout their senior years.
Enter the NLI. By signing the letter, an athlete agrees to attend a particular school; in return, the school agrees to give that player an athletic scholarship. In theory, this is all well and good. Athletes and institutions both desire certainty—coaches don't want to scramble at the last minute to fill roster holes when oft-mercurial teenagers decide to play somewhere else, and players don't want to spend months wondering if there's a really a spot for them at the university of their choice.
Handshake understandings are nice, but they're not especially rock-ribbed. In January, the University of Connecticut reportedly reneged on a verbal scholarship offer to high school linebacker Ryan Dickens, who was recruited by since-fired coach Bob Diaco. A written contract means both sides can breathe a little easier. No more recruiting phone calls. No more guessing. Players can enjoy their springs and summers. Coaches can start rearranging their depth charts. Everyone wins, because everyone knows the score.
"The original intent of the letter is valid," says Warren Zola, a sports law expert and Boston College professor. "A school offers a spot for a player, it comes with a scholarship, you want some level of commitment from both sides, and this piece of paper offers that. The problem is that they are preposterously one-sided."
Are they ever. Take a look at the standard NLI language and provisions, and one thing becomes clear: the boilerplate agreement requires athletes to give up a lot, but asks schools to surrender very little. How so? Upon signing, players forfeit their right to be recruited by other schools. If they change their minds and enroll at another school, they have to sit out a season of competition and lose another year of eligibility. Athletes can be released from NLIs, but only if schools—and in the real world, that means coaches—agree to it.
Meanwhile, athletic departments are required to make good on their promise of a one-year athletic scholarship—that is, unless an athlete isn't admitted to a school in the first place, which can always happen after they've signed their NLI.
"It's the ultimate out," says Marc Isenberg, a California-based athlete advocate and author of Money Players: A Guide to Succeed in Sports, Business & Life for Current and Future Pro Athletes. "Schools can say to any player, 'Well, sorry, you didn't get in. You didn't fit the academic profile of the students we're admitting.' Think of how subjective that is. Suppose I'm a coach. How easy would it be, if I decide I can do better giving a scholarship to another player, to just not push for one of my recruits to be admitted?"
Defenders of the NLI system contend that it works well enough. The NCAA claims that of the more than 36,000 athletes who signed letters in 2011, only 700 asked for releases—and just 30 of those requests weren't eventually granted by university athletic directors. On the other hand, well enough isn't the same as fair, and the asymmetric nature of the contract means athletes can be hung out to dry.
To wit: NLIs explicitly state that athletes are signing with schools, not particular coaches. In reality, though, coaches play a huge role in recruiting; the close relationships players develop with them, especially assistant coaches, are often a major part of why they choose certain schools. Yet it's hardly uncommon for those same coaches to jump ship for better jobs shortly after locking up recruiting classes—leaving those same young men and women feeling like they've been hit with a bait-and-switch.
Take Mike Weber, a top high school running back from Detroit who signed with Ohio State in 2015. Weber had been torn between the Buckeyes and archrival Michigan; the night before signing day, Ohio State assistant coach Stan Drayton, whom Weber had grown to trust, reportedly was on the phone with him until almost midnight, assuring him that the Buckeyes were the right choice. "Just being a Michigan kid who is going to graduate with an Ohio State degree and wants to live in his state again," Drayton told Cleveland.com, recalling the conversation. "He wants to represent Detroit wearing scarlet and gray, and he absolutely can do that. He absolutely will do it. I have a wife from Detroit. I told him, 'If I sit here and coach you and not let you represent Detroit, my wife is probably going to divorce me.'"
A day after Weber signed, Drayton divorced the scarlet and gray, taking a job with the Chicago Bears. Weber promptly tweeted, "I'm hurt as hell I ain't gonna lie." Unfortunately for him, NLIs do not contain emotional distress clauses. "Coaches pitch and recruit families based on the relationships they'll have with the player," Zola says. "But far too often, high school students don't realize that if coach leaves, they're not free. For a coach who recruited you and built up that rapport and made all sorts of promises to walk away before you've even played a game, I think that is unfair.
"[Basketball coach] Steve Alford leaves New Mexico to go to UCLA, but his son [basketball player Bryce] has to get out of his NLI to follow. [Football coach] Lane Kiffin makes promises to [Tennessee] recruits and then walks away to take another job [at USC]. It's a one-way street."
In most cases, schools will do the right and reasonable thing by granting releases to players who want out—as Baylor did last summer, when a group of incoming freshmen got cold feet following the university's disturbing sexual assault scandal. Only here's the problem: schools don't have to do anything. NLIs give them unilateral power.
Devonte' Graham discovered this the hard way. A late-blooming high school basketball star from North Carolina, he signed with Appalachian State late in his junior year—mostly because the school had threatened to give his potential scholarship to another player, and Graham felt that "he wouldn't be able to get anything better."
During his senior year, however, Graham raised his level of play. He became a more coveted recruit. Wanting to explore his options, he asked Appalachian State coach Jason Capel for a release. Capel refused. Rather than play for Capel, Graham spent a year at a post-high school prep academy in New Hampshire, hoping the coach would change his mind. He didn't. In fact, it wasn't until Appalachian State replaced Capel with Jim Fox that the school freed Graham to speak with other coaches. He ultimately went to Kansas, where he's currently a starter on a national title contender.
"I think the only thing you see outside of college sports that would be comparable to NLIs is non-compete clauses [in employment contracts]," Zola says. "But those are typically negotiated, and there's compensation given for giving up those rights. And even then, the courts will strike them down if they're overly broad. Meanwhile, NLIs are sort of all-encompassing."
This is, of course, ironic. The NCAA insists that athletes are simply students who happens to be good at sports, and as such can neither be considered school employees nor allowed to be paid; at the same time, NCAA-administered NLIs subject athletes to restrictions that no other students face, and are more onerous than most employment contracts. For the very best high school athletes, there's a simple solution to the problems that can come with signing a letter: Don't bother.
While they don't do much to publicize it, schools can—and do—offer financial aid agreements that contain scholarship guarantees, and also allow athletes to continue talking to other suitors. Last year, receiver Demetris Robinson inked agreements with Georgia, Georgia Tech, and the University of California, Berkeley; he didn't decide on Cal until May, well after signing day. This wasn't without risk. All three schools could have moved on, using scholarship slots set aside for the speedy pass catcher on other athletes. Only Robinson, an elite talent, was worth waiting for. Sports Illustrated's Staples estimates that the best 100 to 200 players in each high school football recruiting class have the leverage to follow suit.
Isenberg isn't so sure. As a speaker at top high school basketball summer camps, including one held for the top 100 prep recruits by the National Basketball Players' Association, he has explained how NLIs work. "I want to say, 'Don't sign it,'" he says. "It's a shady, one-sided deal. But when it comes down to it, if you're not a McDonald's All-American, a program-changer, you still probably have no choice but to sign."
A few years ago, Isenberg says, he found himself advising the family of an elite high school basketball recruit—an athlete being courted by the nation's premier programs, who is now playing professionally. The family was uncomfortable with the NLI, so Isenberg drafted an alternative. In exchange for the athlete's commitment, the letter asked that the school to:
• Guarantee a four-year scholarship;
•Not bind the athlete to attend the school in the event of a coaching change or NCAA rules violation investigation;
• Not require the athlete's parents to co-sign the letter, as is the case with NLI's.
Isenberg and the family presented the alternate letter to the coach of a top-five college basketball program. "He listened to us," Isenberg recalls. "And then he said, 'Look, I'm going to the press conference [to announce our recruiting class] tomorrow, and I want to name everybody. If you don't sign [a regular NLI], I might have somebody else waiting in the wings.' That's heady stuff for a 17- or 18-year-old. The pressure is too great."
Like Zola, Isenberg believes that there's a place—and a purpose—for some sort of contract that binds recruits and schools. But both men think the current NLI should be reformed. Zola suggests adding clauses that require schools to adhere to strict time limits on sports activity, allow athletes to work jobs and internships during their off-seasons, and guarantee that they'll cover tuition costs until athletes graduate, regardless of whether they've exhausted their athletic eligibility. Isenberg thinks that if schools decline to admit athletes who already have signed NLIs, they should provide financial reimbursement for the value of those scholarships. "We can come up with a more fair system that reflects reality," he says.
Do the NCAA and its member schools want a fairer system? That's an open question. A decade ago, some schools were inserting coaching-change-out clauses into their letters. The association's NLI committee put the kibosh on that practice. Historically, the college sports establishment's attitude toward expanding rights and benefits for athletes has been simple: Hell fucking no. The NCAA fights tooth and nail for amateurism, an arguably illegal system of inarguable economic control; player-friendly reforms such as cost-of-living stipends and the ability to even offer four-year scholarships have come only as a result of legal defeats and public shamings.
"Here's the biggest component to all this," Zola says. "Schools have lawyers and conferences and all sorts of people looking out for their best interests. Meanwhile, you have an unsophisticated consumer base of athletes who are ill-prepared to enter this multimillion-dollar business. They're not allowed to have agents. Any level of guidance they get may be deemed to be 'improper benefits.' So you end up with these take-it-or-leave-it contracts."
Back to Roquan Smith. On the morning of signing day, he reportedly woke up undecided between UCLA and Georgia; even after he picked the Bruins on national television, he remained uncertain. At a subsequent lunch with his parents and his high school coach, Larry Harold—who told Smith not to sign anything unless he was absolutely sure of his choice—he received a text message from Georgia coaches: Jeff Ulbrich, the UCLA assistant coach who had recruited Smith for three years, was leaving for the Atlanta Falcons.
A few days later, Smith signed a financial aid agreement with Georgia. Not a letter of intent. He still had his signing day party, and still had his moment in the media sun. But in a system that asks athletes to take it, he chose instead to leave. "How clever of the NCAA to create a national celebration around an agreement that's so shady," Isenberg says. "I get celebrating. It's an amazing accomplishment and exciting time. But let's not forget that we're celebrating an agreement that is onerous and draconian. Would the world of college athletics spin off its axis if the players had more flexibility? I don't think so."
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