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Graham, Hamilton Cases Muddy NCAA’s Relationship with NLI

Update, 10/3: The NLI office has released a statement with corrections to some of the information in this post. See the changes below as well as some additional commentary at the end.

As this summer comes to a close, stories about the National Letter of Intent and prospects being less than enthused about sticking to the NLI are nothing new. But a new wrinkle in an ongoing NLI battle and new reports about another highlight an interesting and often misunderstood aspect of the NLI.

The National Letter of Intent was not created by the NCAA. It is the product of the Collegiate Commissioners Association. The CCA controls the terms of the NLI and decides the signing date. Until a few years ago, the Southeastern Conference office administered the NLI. The NCAA had virtually nothing to do with the NLI until administration of the program (processing NLIs, generating individual forms, coordinating appeals, etc.) was moved to the NCAA Eligibility Center (the NLI office was housed in the Eligibility Center when the NCAA took over administration in 2007, but was moved out of the EC in October 2012).

But Isaac Hamilton and Devonte Graham may drag the NCAA deeper into the NLI debate. Hamilton signed with UTEP before deciding to enroll at UCLA, closer to his grandmother who is ill. UTEP refused to release Hamilton and he lost at least one appeal with an NLI committee. But UCLA and Hamilton allegedly want another bite at the apple:

According to multiple sources, UCLA has moved on a waiver for Hamilton to play this season. The Miners didn’t release Hamilton from his National Letter of Intent and his appeal to the NLI was denied. UCLA is still holding out hope Hamilton could be cleared.

In Graham’s case, part of Appalachian State’s reasoning for refusing to release him is that another school (reportedly NC State) may have recruited him despite his NLI with ASU. And now the NCAA may be involved in this case as well:

N.C. State senior associate athletic director Christopher Boyer told that the school has not heard from the NCAA regarding this matter and wasn’t aware of an “NLI inquiry.” However, sources said the NCAA and NLI are aware of the situation and are looking into it.

Not to mention this video from earlier in the summer where UCLA freshman Eddie Vanderdoes mentions he talked to the NCAA regarding his NLI appeal.

Some of this might be imprecise language. Hamilton’s waiver might actually be his second appeal for his NLI release. Vanderdoes might have talked to the NLI committees through the NCAA, making it less than clear exactly which group he was talking to. And the NCAA staff investigating potential tampering in the Graham case may be the part of the Eligibility Center which handles the NLI, not the main enforcement staff (violations of NLI provisions are investigated by the NLI office staff and NLI committees, not the NCAA enforcement staff).

But even if this is confusion about the NLI, it is confusion the NCAA can ill afford. It is already tough to say the NCAA and NLI are truly separate when both are controlled by memberships that overlap a great deal. If the NCAA is committed to not having the NLI under its sole control, the national office should clear up any misunderstandings about the role the NCAA has in making decisions on NLI appeals or enforcing the terms of the agreement.

But if all these reports are correct and the NCAA is getting more involved with the NLI beyond just the paperwork, the program needs to be brought clearly within the association’s purview. The NCAA is not in a position to be yet another whipping boy, forced by its members to make decisions and initiate investigations based on rules that are not its own. It makes no sense for the NCAA to investigate tampering with Devonte Graham because the NCAA has no rule against tampering with a signed prospect until he or she enrolls. Likewise, how can the NCAA possibly waive a penalty imposed by a separate organization? (See below)

One of the forces marginalizing the NCAA is its lack of control over things people assume it runs, like the football postseason and conference affiliation. Unpopular decisions are blamed on the NCAA at the same time the association appears impotent or ineffective when it cannot exert influence in an area. If the current trend with signed prospects continues, the NLI will soon be added to that list.

Additional Commentary 10/3: To the extent that this post increased confusion about the NLI and its relationship to the NCAA rather than clearing anything up, I regret and apologize for the error.

The paragraph which was struck is not correct since the premise, that the NCAA may be increasing its involvement with the NLI, does not appear to be the case. As noted above, what sources say about NCAA processes, especially anything involving multiple layers of review and appeal, are often inaccurate or were not well understood by the source.

In one of these cases though, the source was the student-athlete himself who said he went through the entire NLI appeal process. Even though he was simply mistaken, it is still a significant data point. It says confusion about the current relationship between the NLI and NCAA is inherent to the current system. It is one thing for a “source close to the situation” to not understand the NLI process, even if it is someone we think should know better like a Division I coach. It is another when it involves an individual (albeit a 17-19 year old) who has first-hand experience with the process.

As the NLI statement points out, only a tiny percentage of prospects ever do much more with the NLI than sign it and forget about it. The larger issue with the current way the NLI and NCAA interact might have less to do with what the NCAA does with the NLI and more with what prospects are doing with the NLI. If this summer’s few high profile challenges to the NLI by prospects is the start of a trend toward more releases and more appeals, that may overwhelm the ability of the NCAA to educate the media and the public about how the NLI works and which groups have which responsibilities. See for example the persistence of the idea that the NCAA limits how much student-athletes can earn in permissible employment despite those limits being lifted over a decade ago.

I still believe there is merit to the NCAA and CCA reexamining their relationship and centralizing the entire NLI program, both administration and governance, in one organization or the other. But the NLI statement makes it clear the impetus for such a discussion is not coming from changes the NCAA has made in how it administers the NLI. Again, I apologize for adding to rather than reducing that confusion.


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