Most athletes (and their families) are thrilled to end the recruiting process and accept a guaranteed (or so they are led to believe) 1-year athletic scholarship.
College sports can be great in many ways, but the NLI shows just how lopsided the relationship between athlete and institution really is.
There at least 10 reasons why the NLI sucks. Reading the NLI and listening to the decades-old spin from the NCAA community, it reminds me of the fraternity initiation (er, whipping) from Animal House. "Thank you, sir! May I have another?"
1) It totally misrepresents reality
The NLI stipulates that athletes are signing with school, not athletic program, even if the actual recruiting process reflects the opposite. Yes, we want athletes to factor the school into their decisions, but every dollar—or thousand—an athletic department invests to sign a player signals just the opposite. Kentucky coach John Calipari, who is one of the few coaches willing to put his money where his mouth is (more on that later), once said: "Kids come and go to programs in most cases because of the coach. We can say that's not the case and they're supposed to sign at the school, but let's be real. They want to play for the coach."
2) Yeah, right the NLI is a "voluntary"
Technically, the NLI is a voluntary program. In 2007, the NCAA's Susan Peal, the director of the NLI, told Seth Davis: "Parents call me all the time [with questions], and I tell them hey, you don't have to sign the NLI. The coach will give you an athletics aid agreement, which has to accompany the NLI anyway. Now, will institutions let you do that? Maybe not, but it's worth asking the question." Wishful thinking.
3) "Know the rules...before you sign"
The first thing you see on the NLI website is that statement, which is like telling taxpayers, "Learn the IRS tax code." Even if you know everything, you still have pay taxes. For athletes and their families, even if they know the NLI and NCAA rules cold, almost every recruit will still sign the dadgum thing. The most galling part of the NLI website is that it lists the "many advantages to both prospective student-athletes and participating educational institution." If you say something enough times, you start to believe it. And so do others.
Crazy, but true. Scholarships are granted for one year. After that they can be revoked for any reason, including poor athletic performance. If a player signs the NLI and then changes his mind, he can ask to be released from the NLI, but good luck if the program still wants to retain his "rights." After that, if he wants to transfer, the school still has the power to dictate which schools the player can transfer to. If you really want to figure out how this all works and you have 6 months to devote to intense study, I recommend reading the NCAA Transfer Guide.
5) The NLI is unconscionable
And that's not hyperbole. Peter Rush, a lawyer who represented Jeremy Bloom in his lawsuit against the NCAA, told Seth Davis that the NLI could be challenged on the basis that it is "unconscionable," which is a contract that "did not result from real bargaining between parties who had freedom of choice and understanding and ability to negotiate in a meaningful fashion." Of course, someone has to sue the deep-pocked schools to prove.
6) Contracts signed by minors are voidable
Minors (under 18 years of age) cannot sign a legally valid contract. The NLI circumvents this legal hurdle by requiring a parent or guardian sign as well unless they are over 21 years of age! Lawyers I've consulted believe minors who sign the NLI have a good case to void their NLI, but how many will 1) want to back out and 2) have the financial resources to sue?
7) No side agreements
In 2008, Xavier Henry and Nolan Dennis signed the NLI with the University of Memphis back when John Calipari was coach. When Henry and Dennis signed the NLI, they we're given letters from the school's athletic director (presumably with Calipari's blessing) stating that they would be automatically released if Calipari left for another school. That's the right thing to do. And that's what Memphis did. Of course, the NCAA membership caught on to these shenanigans. In 2009, it made the NLI even worse by adding that any side agreements to "release the prospect in case of a coaching change or other circumstances" are "null and void."
8) Commitment subject to admission into college
The NLI guarantees an athlete a one-year athletic scholarship (grant-in-aid), but it provides athletic departments with wiggle room: The NLI is subject to the athlete being admitted into the university. It's not like that NLI puts that in bold.
9) Top recruits have leverage, but rarely use it
Top 50 recruits--the program changers--have the leverage to dictate the terms of their enrollment. If a blue-chip recruit tells a coach, "I'll commit to your program, but I'm not going to sign the NLI," how many coaches will say, that's not good enough? If John Wall, Kevin Love, Kevin Durant or any other top recruit refused to sign the NLI, their coaches will keep a scholarship available. And if more recruits started doing this, there would be strength in numbers.
10) Protecting the school's investment
The real reason schools offer the NLI is they want to protect its investment in their program. WIth millions at stake, the last thing a college coach wants is to live and die by the whims of a teenager. Fair enough. I've always said, I'm not against the NLI. I'm against its onerous provisions. Rewrite it so that is fair to both parties--and I'll be the first one to endorse it.
Final words: Enough's enough. I've written about the NLI many times in the past. And players continue to sign. Many basketball writers, including Seth Davis, Dan Wetzel and Mike DeCourcy have also written passionately against signing. Maybe this will be the year a few players refuse to sign. There's definitely strength in numbers. Stay tuned.