The National Letter of Intent that prospective college football players sign on the first Wednesday in February, officially ending their recruitment and contractually obligating them to the school with which they are signing, has long been thought flawed. However, after a National Signing Day that seemed to feature more cloak and dagger recruiting by college coaches than ever before, the NLI has earned some heavy recent scorn.
Sports Illustrated called the National Letter of Intent the “worst contract in American sports,” and in the week following NSD, position coaches who forged personal relationship with prospects under the guise of coaching them throughout the course of their collegiate careers were free to pursue opportunities elsewhere while the player remained tethered to their school via the NLI. Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith originally committed to UCLA but found out that UCLA defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich was rumored to be in play for a job with the Atlanta Falcons.
Smith caught wind of Ulbrich’s intentions and asked him directly about whether or not he planned on staying at UCLA, and Ulbrich lied. Four days after National Signing Day, Ulbrich took a job as a position coach with the Falcons.
A high-level four-star recruit, Roquan Smith was lucky enough not to have signed a National Letter of Intent on that Wednesday. Otherwise, he’d have been bound to UCLA even after the coach that recruited him left for Atlanta. In the wake of the dishonesty, Smith reopened his recruitment and has now selected to play football at the University of Georgia.
However, Smith elected not to sign a National Letter of Intent, instead opting just to sign a financial aid agreement with Georgia. This offers Smith some level of protection, committing Georgia to a one-year scholarship provided that he qualifies academically and giving Smith the option to sign elsewhere up until he enrolls at school later this year.
Because Smith was such a highly sought after recruit, he likely could have played it this way from the beginning and most schools would have been undeterred. Yet, it’s likely that we haven’t seen these tactics employed more frequently because most recruits aren’t as sure-fire of a prospect as Smith. Ultimately, if you’re recruiting two kids for a scholarship to play defensive back of similar skill levels and one refuses to sign an NLI–meaning you might not know if that scholarship will be filled until the summer–you’d be more likely to focus your efforts on the kid who was willing to sign his papers.
Yet, in instances where a prospect does have leverage, they should feel empowered to use it to the fullest extent. We saw relatively high profile situations at UCLA, Ohio State and Texas this year where prospects had primary recruiters leave for other opportunities just days after National Signing Day.
And, while that’s not the first time we’ve seen something of this nature, it’s become increasingly prevalent, and it’s quite obvious that these coaches are fulfilling their obligations as recruiters to their current employers before leaving simply so that they don’t disrupt the recruiting cycle and ruffle any feathers. Because of this, if I were a Top 100 player in the country, I’d be relatively clear about my intentions early on in the process.
I’d be happy to sign a financial aid agreement and that’s it. Up until the point where I enroll, the college coaches that recruited me would have to take the same leap of faith that I did by committing in the first place.
The only other recourse that protects the student-athlete is reworking the verbiage of the National Letter of Intent allowing a student to back out of his paperwork in specific instances when a coach directly influencing a player’s recruitment leaves the program. Nebraska head coach Mike Riley seems to be a proponent of adding to the language to give players more protection in their NLI.
Whether or not that happens is another matter entirely, but, ultimately, if the NLI doesn’t change dramatically, we’ll see more and more players electing not to sign it for better or worse.