Eddie Vanderdoes and the Future of the NLI

Reports are starting to filter out of UCLA that Eddie Vanderdoes, who signed with Notre Dame before changing his mind and heading to UCLA, won a release from his NLI on his second and final appeal. That would mean Vanderdoes would not have to sit out this season and would not be charged a season of competition.

If once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, and three times is a trend, then Vanderdoes is part of an emerging trend of athletes asking out of their NLIs without something like a coaching change as the proximate cause. Both Issac Hamilton and Matthew Thomas (who relented and will enroll at Florida State) are in similar situations. Mixed in to these cases are family pressures, allegations of tampering, and in the cases of Vanderdoes and Hamilton, ailing relatives. With Vanderdoes winning an appeal, where does that leave the NLI?

Of all the precedents that could have been set in this case, winning a release on appeal has the least impact. As inconsistent as they may be, waivers and appeals in college athletics still need to check a few boxes to even be considered. If Notre Dame had released Vanderdoes, all that does is potentially prompt more prospects to ask for releases, which the institution does not have to give.

The most dangerous outcome for institutions and coaches keeping the NLI as is would have been if Vanderdoes had gone to UCLA, sat out the NLI’s basic penalty, starred for two years, then been a high NFL draft pick. Instead of sending the message that you might be able to get out of the NLI, that scenario would have sent the message that you don’t need to get out of the NLI. If you change your mind, you can just take the penalty and it will not impact your professional dreams.

Will we see more athletes ask for releases and file appeals if they do not get them? Absolutely. That was a trend which was going to happen anyway. It would defy logic to think that with college transfers, decommitments, high school transfers, and switching of club teams seemingly on the rise that the same forces would not impact prospects once they signed the NLI.

But will it be an epidemic? Probably not. Like most things in the NCAA, 90-99% of athletes pass through without a hitch. They sign with a school, enroll at the school, and the NLI never rears its ugly head. Will those athletes who do ask get their releases or win their appeals? Maybe, maybe not. There are so many elements to the Vanderdoes situation that it is hard to predict how many athletes will be able to present a similar sort of winning case.

As far as what it says about the NLI itself, this summer should be Exhibit A in why it would be foolish to expand the NLI, particularly with an early signing period for football. It has become clear that through a combination of tradition, family/community pressures, and misinformation, there are a bunch of recruits signing NLIs on the initial signing date who should be waiting, if they should be signing at all. Moving the signing date up will only add to the number of prospects who have a reason to want out of the NLI.

There are no shortage of ideas about changing, eliminating, or replacing the NLI and the signing process, but it is becoming more and more clear that this binary approach (zero commitment on either side vs. apparent total commitment for both sides) needs to become more flexible and nuanced. What I suspect though is that institutions and coaches will push for a more rigid and punitive version of the NLI. In doing so, they run the risk of provoking such a strong backlash that the NLI might not survive.