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A More Flexible NLI is a Better NLI

Matthew Thomas’s effort to get out of his National Letter of Intent is as good a time as any to take a look at the NLI. The NLI is roundly and in many cases rightly criticized. But it still serves an essential purpose and is so ingrained in the recruiting culture that fixing it rather than scraping it is easier, no matter how big its faults.

The basic problem is that a grant-in-aid agreement signed by a prospect is extremely advantageous to the prospect. As a result, schools developed the NLI to accompany the grant-in-aid agreement, making the NLI very advantageous to schools. A school loses so much by not having an NLI along with a scholarship agreement that if an NLI can be offered, it almost always is.

The changes I’ve made are designed to do two things. First, they make the NLI a bit more flexible, so that it can be used as a single way for an athlete to make a commitment to a school while adapting to different circumstances. And second, the changes attach a cost to a school for signing a prospect to an NLI. Combined this should cause the offering and signing of an NLI to provoke more thought by both the prospect and the school.

Attached here is a copy of an NLI which I converted from a PDF and edited with the changes. W

Summary of Changes
here each change occurred is indicated in the document. While I started with a 2011-12 NLI, the terms have not changed significantly since then. I’ve linked the 2011-12 NLI for comparison purposes.

1. Removed Signing Periods

No more signing day or signing periods. Prospects can sign an NLI at any time during the academic year in their senior year of high school and beyond. Signing in the summer would be limited to financial aid agreements only.

2. Added Four-Year Transfers

Now all athletes signing with a school could sign an NLI. This brings all recruits into the same system (or not, depending if they choose to sign an NLI).

3. Aid For Two Years

While the student-athlete is committing to the school for one year, the school’s commitment must be longer. So the aid agreement that accompanies the NLI must be at least two years long (a year and a half for midyear enrollees). If schools want to sign an athlete to just one year of aid, they may not use the NLI.

4. More Transfer Freedom

Offering an NLI to an athlete should be evidence of a strong commitment from the school. Adding an additional year of aid is one element. Another is to automatically grant athletes permission to contact other schools if aid is cancelled, reduced, or not renewed at any time during the athlete’s career.

5. Early Signing Period Penalties Removed

With no more signing periods, there are no longer any penalties for football athletes to sign in the early period.

6. Automatic Releases

The concept of an automatic release has been one pushed for a number of years, particularly in coaching changes. Instead of simply making the release automatic for all athletes, this concept would allow an automatic release to be negotiated between the athlete and the school. Three possible conditions are offered: a head or assistant coach(es) leave or the school receives a Notice of Allegations or probation for a major infraction. There is also space for athletes and schools to add in a fourth of their choosing.

7. Flexible Recruiting Ban

This would allow athletes to reopen their recruitment after signing an NLI by canceling the recruiting ban. This is to offset some of the very early signings we may see with no set signing periods other than at the start of the senior year of high school.

But unlike athletes who are “committed but taking visits” there is no middle ground here. Signees must formally cancel the recruiting ban (through an Eligibility Center website that would be developed). And there is a consequence: if a signee cancels the recruiting ban, the university may unilaterally cancel his or her athletic scholarship.

Practical Impact

Together, these changes create an NLI which is more student-athlete friendly, more flexible, but which still respects the needs of the institution in the recruiting process.

Schools must commit more financial aid to NLI signees. Athletes who finish the NLI obligation and who then have their scholarship reduced, cancelled or nonrenewed are then free to explore transfer options. Transfers from other NCAA schools are also brought under the same system and play by the same rules, at least to the greatest extent possible under the NCAA’s transfer regulations.

The document itself contains a section which must be negotiated: the automatic releases. This creates an opportunity for other terms of the grant-in-aid agreement to be discussed, like the length of the scholarship (which must be at least two years to fulfill the NLI requirements) and the amount of aid (if this is an equivalency sport). The automatic release if aid is reduced offer an incentive for coaches in equivalency sports who vary an athlete’s aid year-to-year to put the entire four- or five-year plan in writing.

Finally, between the automatic releases and the ability of the athlete to cancel the recruiting ban, the NLI is less ironclad than it is now. But once an athlete signs with a school, if the school does not trigger the automatic release conditions, the athlete cannot walk away from the NLI unilaterally. The athlete can reopen their recruitment, and the school could cancel the NLI and financial aid agreement. Or the school can attempt to enforce the NLI despite the athlete’s ability to look at other options.

Together with the lack of defined signing periods, the NLI is used more as a written commitment intended to be honored by both parties but which can be dissolved rather easily. While no signing periods means many athletes will sign as soon as possible, the more pro-athlete NLI and the need to negotiate some terms of the NLI and grant-in-aid agreement will counteract the push for earlier signings some.

Are you ready for the NEXT STEP!