The Final Word on the National Letter of Intent

National Signing Day became National Letter of Intent Week here at Connecticut Sports Law.  Adding to our prior coverage of the National Letters of 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 most commonly advocated by observers of collegiate athletics: the NLI, in its “take it or leave it” form, is a one-sided agreement that may violate basic tenants of contract law. 

One student opined that the system provided schools and student-athletes with mutual benefit and protection, and is acceptable in its present form.  During class, only one other student (of a class of about 17) agreed that the NLI is acceptable.

Although the NLI and recent rules against adding terms (such as an escape clause should the coach change schools) certainly strengthens the argument in favor of unconscionability, there is a practical side to this debate.  Accordingly, I asked the class the following question:

If you were representing a student-athlete would you advise that he or she sign a NLI?

The answer was generally yes - most would advise a student-athlete to sign this one-sided contract.  The reason?  Lack of leverage.  Only the absolute top student-athletes have the leverage to risk not signing the NLI.  The remaining players risk, by not signing, that schools will fill up scholarship slots with other student-athletes.  Although the NLI is at best flawed, and at worst unconscionable, it is still the only vehicle through which a student-athlete can secure, at least to some extent, a scholarship.

Considering that the academic debate and practical realities of the NLI occupy opposite sides of the spectrum, is the entire debate over the NLI a waste of time and energy?  I don’t think so.  Even though student-athletes will likely sign a NLI if it is offerred, they should be fully aware of the terms of the contract.  And, there is increasing evidence that student-athletes are taking a critical look at the NLI.  Consider Seantrel Henderson, the top offensive line recruit in the country.  Henderson made an oral committment to USC, but will not sign a NLI until USC appears before the NCAA Infractions Committee

Henderson, as the top offensive line and perhaps top overall recruit, clearly has the leverage to decline signing the NLI until he learns more about the possible sanctions faced by USC.  There will be a scholarship for Henderson, who stands 6’8″ and weighs over 300 pounds, whether he signs or not.  Others may not possess the same leverage, but the lesson is the same: know the terms of the agreement before signing your name on the dotted line of a NLI.

Thanks to Aaron Katzman for the information on the Seantrel Henderson commitment.

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