CTSportsLaw Mailbox: Is the National Letter of Intent Legally Enforceable?

istock_000003705748small11.jpgA Connecticut Sports Law reader recently emailed me concerning the enforceability of National Letters of Intent. 

What is to stop a student from challenging a National Letter of Intent after the fact in court, besides the cost of litigation? 

The National Letter of Intent (NLI) represents a contract between a prospective student-athlete and a university.  Thus, both parties could sue each other in the event of a breach.  For a student-athlete however, the cost of litigation is not the only issue.  The time spent in litigation might be a more pressing concern.  For example, if a player breaks his or her NLI commitment, and is not released by the Athletic Director, he or she has to sit out a year (and lose that year of eligibility) before participating in collegiate athletics at another school.   It is unlikely that a lawsuit would be concluded by that point.  Moreover, there are never any guarantees of success in litigation.

If it really comes to it, could this agreement actually be considered an unconscionable adhesion contract and thus, if challenged, be rendered void? 

A contract of adhesion is essentially a form agreement that one party drafts and the other party must accept or reject, without a meaningful opportunity to negotiate.  The NLI fits that description.  Although Memphis and John Calipari have been willing to negotiate terms (specifically Provision No. 19 regarding the departure of a coach) most schools are unwilling to negotiate. 

But the question of enforceability does not merely hinge upon whether the NLI is a contract of adhesion.  After all, we sign such contracts, such as cell phone agreements, gym memberships and liability waivers, without blinking and the contracts are typically enforceable.  To void the contract, a court must deem it unconscionable, or contrary to public policy by a court.  (Click here to read about a Connecticut case involving the enforceability of a gym’s waiver of liability). 

There may be another issue to consider: a student-athlete’s access to counsel to assist him or her in reviewing and signing the NLI.  If NLIs are typically signed by a student-athlete without the advice of counsel and without a meaningful opportunity to negotiate, a student-athlete may have a stronger argument to void the contract on unconscionability or public policy grounds.  In fact, access to counsel forms the foundation of two ongoing cases in collegiate athletics: Oliver v. NCAA and O’Bannon v. NCAA.

According to Marc Isenberg, publisher of the Money Players Blog, many lawyers do believe the NLI could be deemed a contract of adhesion, and invalidated.  But keep in mind that although the terms are certainly one-sided, the NLI is voluntary and the terms may not rise to the level of unconscionable in the eyes of the court.

Got a sports law question?  If so, please post a comment or send me an email. 

Comments

  1. Thanks for your breakdown on this, I’ve been curious about legal letters and I had to tell you this is the best article I’ve found.

    Much appreciated

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Trackbacks

  1. […] heavily favors colleges and universities, student-athletes continue to sign on the dotted line.  It’s basically a take it or leave it proposition, and few players are willing to risk leaving a scholarship offer on the table.  Some coaches, like […]

  2. […] heavily favors colleges and universities, student-athletes continue to sign on the dotted line.  It’s basically a take it or leave it proposition, and few players are willing to risk leaving a scholarship offer on the table.  Some coaches, like […]

  3. […] (National Signing Day: Beware of the National Letter of Intent); and in terms of enforceability (CTSportsLaw Mailbox: Is the National Letter of Intent Legally Enforceable?) and assistance of counsel (Talk to My Lawyer: 3 Situations Requiring Counsel in […]

  4. […] CTSportsLaw Mailbox: Is the National Letter of Intent Legally Enforceable? […]

  5. […] the legal aspects of the National Letter of Intent (NLI) in some detail.  The primary issue is whether the NLI is an enforceable contract.  Nevertheless, most student-athletes and their parents are not interested in legal theory, but […]

  6. […] Letter of Intent (NLI).  There is a legal question often discussed in Sports Law courses as to whether the NLI is a legally enforceable agreement.  But there are also many more practical issues facing players: there are issues for players […]

  7. […] under the leadership of new head coach Paul Pasqualoni.  The following student-athletes signed National Letters of Intent with […]

  8. […] CTSportsLaw Mailbox: Is the National Letter of Intent Legally Enforceable? […]

  9. […] CTSportsLaw Mailbox: Is the National Letter of Intent Legally Enforceable? […]

  10. […] the Athletic Director) back out of his commitment he just signed via his NLI.  Resolution? None.  Litigation is pretty much out of the question, and playing for another school comes at the price of siting out  losing a year of […]

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