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Three Things You Didn’t Know About the NLI

Wednesday is Signing Day. On Signing Day, thousands of prospects will sign the National Letter of Intent. A lot has been written about the National Letter of Intent, enough that most fans understand the basic premise: An athlete signs the NLI, gets an athletic scholarship for a year, and agrees to attend the school. But there are still some details that may surprise quite a few people.

1. The NLI is Voluntary for Schools

It has been a long, hard fight but most fans understand now that a prospective student-athlete does not have to sign an NLI. Between increased transfer activity (4-4 transfers cannot sign an NLI) and commitments being pushed back later and later (eventually the NLI signing period ends), signing just a scholarship offer is not that weird at all.

But what most people might not know is that a school does not have to be part of the NLI program. The National Letter of Intent is a voluntary agreement amongst schools to not recruit each others signed prospects and to abide by the NLI penalties if a prospect does not fulfill their end of the NLI bargain. Individual schools or conferences could opt-out of the National Letter of Intent program.

Almost all Division I schools are members of the NLI program, with the notable exceptions being the service academies and the Ivy League, which do not offer athletic scholarships. If an athlete signs an NLI, he or she could still choose to not enroll at the school and instead go to an Ivy League school or service academy with no penalty. Likewise, because they do not sign NLIs, prospects committed to those schools can be recruited by NLI members up to the point they enroll.

2. The NLI Does Not Guarantee a Scholarship

The National Letter of Intent must be accompanied by a written offer of athletics financial aid. The athlete must sign both the NLI and the scholarship offer. As a result, it is often said that the NLI “guarantees” the athlete keep the scholarship.

But the NLI offers no real protections beyond those already in the scholarship and the NCAA rules about the terms and conditions of athletic financial aid agreements. The reasons a scholarship can be cancelled are still the same. The NLI only requires that the athlete receive a scholarship offer for a specific academic year (or term in the case of midyear enrollees).

If a coach decides to cancel the scholarship before or during the athlete’s first year at the school, he or she uses the same procedure as with an athlete who does not sign an NLI. The only difference is that if an athlete’s scholarship during the first year, the NLI is declared null and void and the athlete is no longer bound by it.

3. There are Two NLI Releases

As soon as a coach leaves or a player has second thoughts about the commitment he or she made in the NLI, the talk turns to getting a release from the NLI. But just like for transfers, the term “release” is vague because it could mean multiple things.

The NLI has two releases. A “complete release” means the athlete is no longer bound by any part of the NLI. He or she is free to be recruited by other NLI institutions and can enroll there without penalty. An athlete can also be released from just the NLI recruiting ban. That allows the athlete to be recruited by other schools, but he or she would still be subject to the NLI basic penalty (sit out for one year, lose one year of competition in all sports) if he or she enrolls at another NLI school.

One of the ways the two releases are used is to get around the fact that NLI releases are all or nothing, and cannot be limited to any set of schools or conferences. In many cases, the school will lift the recruiting ban first, then give the athlete a complete release after seeing where they enroll.

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