This article by Mitch Sherman for ESPN.com is ostensibly about the NCAA’s recent interpretation which limits the value to prospects, especially midyear football enrollees, of signing multiple scholarship agreements before committing to a school. But the final sentence of the article shows that the events which prompted the interp have touched a raw nerve:
At the request of a conference that Roe and Israel declined to identify, the legislation will be reviewed in April to determine if a prospect who signs an agreement with a school but does not enroll could constitute an NCAA violation.
This by itself would be a horrible idea.
For all its faults, the National Letter of Intent has one thing going for it. It is a separate document with standard terms. The terms are right there on the document the prospect signs and are available online as well. It might be fine print, but at least the print is right there. While prospects do not always understand what they are agreeing to with the NLI, it is harder to argue that the document itself is misleading.
Scholarship agreements are a different matter. Their terms vary either by conference or institution. They often incorporate whole books of terms with a casual mention of NCAA rules, conference regulations, and student-athlete handbooks. And even which rules are incorporated are sometimes unclear.
For example, say a conference has an intraconference transfer rule which includes prospects who simply sign a scholarship agreement with a conference member. Say the conference also does not have a conference financial aid agreement like the Big Ten’s which spells this out. The prospect could unwittingly sign an agreement which is in effect a conference letter of intent without knowing their freedom is now limited. The only reference could be that the agreement is “subject to conference rules”.
The question posed by the unnamed conference would expand that idea to all of Division I. If this is found to be an NCAA violation, then it seems logical that the penalty for this violation would be similar to breaking the NLI. It could turn every financial aid agreement into an NLI simply because of the boilerplate included in every scholarship that it is “subject to NCAA rules”.
Such an interpretation would also be incorrect. Nothing in the Division I Manual suggests that there is any violation for signing a financial aid agreement and not enrolling at that school. The fact that the NLI had to be created and still exists today suggests that conventional wisdom in college athletics agrees, even if convention wisdom is hit or miss. But if a conference, especially if it is a major football conference, is asking for the interpretation, there is the possibility that the conference will continue to press the issue if they do not get the right answer.
If either the rules are interpreted as the conference requests or new legislation is adopted to “weaponize” financial aid agreements, the NCAA leadership cannot let the current system of signing continue. Prospects will end up signing two documents, both of which are disadvantageous to them (possibly cumulatively) and only one of which explains how.
Should the membership insist that signing any scholarship agreement binds an athlete to the school, the NCAA should insist on a number of other changes to how athletes sign to make sure at the very least athletes have a chance to know what they are signing away, including:
- A single, national financial aid agreement;
- Eliminating the National Letter of Intent as duplicative; and
- Using the NLI system to record any signing before it is effective.
Otherwise the isolated incidents of prospects being dissatisfied with the NLI and having to appeal or accept the penalty will become more numerous. Coaches will happily offer scholarship agreements to prospects who are reluctant to sign the NLI, only for the prospects to learn they essentially signed the same document. To say nothing of the mischief coaches might dream up if they have what amounts to an NLI that no other school knows the athlete signed.
Right now the NCAA seems motivated to do more for student-athletes, especially on the financial aid and benefits front. Even agents might have their scarlet letter removed. But coaches and some administrators seem intent on hanging onto one critical element of control: the freedom of prospects and student-athletes to choose a school. Transfer rules will likely get more restrictive, not less. Most recruiting deregulation runs into loud objections from coaches. And now there appears to be the beginning of a movement to eliminate one of the few advantages prospects had when it came to putting pen to paper.