National Signing Day Brings Excitement, Issues for Minors

By Davidson G. Lucas

The television rating for the NFL draft increased 62% between 2002 and 2008[1].  Fans of professional teams are interested to see which college players will be selected by their team while college football fans tune in to see where the recently departed stars from their team will play professionally.  The NFL draft is organized to place each of the 32 teams on equal footing and to promote parity by ordering the draft as inverse to the team’s success from the previous year.  For the casual professional football fan the player’s career begins at this threshold between amateur and professional status when the player leaves college to enter the NFL draft.

For the college football fan, the equivalent of the draft is the recruiting process, and there has been a comparable boom in interest and coverage of this aspect of college football.  Unlike players leaving college for the professional ranks who sign lucrative contracts with professional teams, players entering college football sign a binding agreement, or a national letter of intent (NLI), with the college or university of their choice.  The Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) includes 120 colleges or universities and each school is allowed 85 scholarships.  There is no formal draft, no rounds where universities takes turns picking players, and there is no universal method to ensure that less successful teams acquire the best players in order to provide parity.  In fact, successful teams are likely to sign the best players.  Blue chip high school football players are free to choose the university which they will attend; winning is always an attraction.  Additionally, winning games expands a fan-base, encourages greater donations from alumni, and leads to more revenue which can be spent on both athletic and academic facilities.  All of these factors play a role in the decisions of recruits for which school they will attend. 

There is no national limit to the number of players that a school may recruit and offer scholarships to in a single season.  Because the agreement between the school and player is a one year contract the school can choose not to renew the scholarship after the academic year is complete.  Schools can also refuse to honor a signed NLI if the athlete cannot qualify for admission to the school for academic reasons.  When schools are recruiting players who with potential problems regarding academic eligibility they often “over-sign” and accept NLIs from a larger number of players than they have scholarships available.  In 2009, the University of Mississippi accepted 37 NLIs with the expectation that some of these prospects would not qualify academically.  Part of the strategy included placing some of the non-qualifiers in preparatory or junior college institutions with the expectation that some may be able to improve their academics and enroll at Ole Miss in the future.  In response to Ole Miss’ actions the SEC limited the number of NLIs that a school may accept in one year to 28.[2]

Today, February 3, 2010 is national signing day.  Fax machines in university offices across the country will be laboring all day starting at 7am.  It is the first day that current high school seniors who graduate in May 2010 may legally submit their NLI.  Schools may recruit a player as early as they want but they may not give the player an official written offer until September 1 of their junior year in high school.  Players often decide to give a verbal commitment before national signing day, but because this verbal commitment is not legally binding, the player can de-commit or void his commitment at any time.  For this reason, schools other than the school to which the player is committed continue to recruit the player and the player often visits and pursues other schools.

Some of the athletes that sign NLIs are minors under the age of eighteen.  In the entertainment industry, another industry where minors often agree to significant contracts, some states have enacted specific legislation to protect the interests of minors.  For example, California has the Coogan Act which protects the interests of minors who sign contracts to be a “performer or entertainer.”  In August 2009 Kelsey Evans filed a suit against the athletic director at Western Carolina University in North Carolina state court.[3]  At the age of seventeen Evans signed a NLI to attend WKU to play basketball but the coach who recruited her left to coach for another university before she enrolled.  After the coaching change Evans wanted to matriculate at another school but WKU refused to release her from the obligations under the NLI.  Like California, North Carolina has a law meant to protect minors who sign contracts; the law allows the minor to disaffirm the contract unless the contract has been approved by a North Carolina Superior Court.  The law also specifically includes minors who “render services as a participant or player in a sport.”[4]  The case was settled and the University allowed Evans to matriculate elsewhere before trial proceedings, but it appears there was a strong case against the University under North Carolina law.

 The lesson that college coaching staffs and university officials across the country should remember today is to note when the recruit turns eighteen, and if it has not happened before the fax arrives… consult an attorney and figure out the applicable state law.  Otherwise, the school risks the possibility of not having any legal method from preventing a valuable recruit from going elsewhere.

Davidson G. Lucas is a third-year law student at Quinnipiac University School of Law in Hamden, Connecticut, with a concentration in Intellectual Property Law.


[1] http://tvbythenumbers.com/2009/04/24/nfl-draft-viewership-up-62-over-6-years/17351

[2] http://www.usatoday.com/sports/recruiting/football/2009-06-04-sec-oversigning_N.htm

[3] http://www.charlotteobserver.com/606/story/910630.html

[4] NC ST § 48A-11(3).

Comments

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Trackbacks

  1. […] Intent was the perspective of four Quinnipiac School of Law Students taking my Sports Law course, Davidson G. Lucas, Martine Trinka, Leo J. White and Dan Mokrycki.  Three of the four students came down on the side […]

  2. […] National Signing Day Brings Excitement, Issues for Minors … […]

  3. […] National Signing Day Brings Excitement, Issues for Minors […]

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