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Letter of Intent Benefits Schools
Not Student-Athletes

By Dan Wetzel
Senior Writer

This article was written about high school basketball players and the National Letter of Intent. However, it applies very well to high school baseball players too.

They'll line up in high schools throughout the country Wednesday.

Top basketball players with pens in hand to twice sign their name to the fourth page of the National Letter of Intent.

College recruits don't know what they're getting themselves into by signing a NLI.

Often a local newspaper will snap a photo, and a collection of family, friends, coaches and teachers will be there to take in the big event.

There will be smiles and hugs and a lot of excitement over an act that is perceived to guarantee four years of free education and a spot on a college basketball team. It should be a moment to celebrate years of hard work.

"Signing day is portrayed as Christmas morning, everyone opening their presents, everyone counting up what they brought in and then people ranking who had what," said Michael Lee, a Southfield, Mich., labor lawyer. "When in effect, many young people have just signed away their legal, if not constitutional, rights."

It's the rarely spoken secret of the National Letter of Intent, a four-page document that virtually every Division I institution strongly encourages high school prospects to sign.

What is thought to be guaranteed really isn't. What people believe it represents, it doesn't. What is meant to be a celebration, should really be a final chance for someone to closely read it.

If they did ...
"They would probably ask what cracker jack box they got this contract out of," said Don Cronson, a New York-based professional sports agent.

Actually, "contract" might be too strong of a word.

"A contract is usually, 'I give you something, you give me something,'" said Lee, a partner at Amberg, Firestone & Lee, a firm specializing in the union side of labor law. "If there is not mutual consideration, it cannot be a contract. In this case, the individual student doesn't get anything. This is essentially a one-sided pledge."

The Collegiate Commissioners Association -- not the NCAA -- administers the National Letter of Intent (NLI). The CCA is a volunteer organization made up of more than 500 colleges and universities, including virtually all Division I schools.

It was created, according to the CCA, in 1964 for "the basic purpose of reducing recruiting time and expense for the institution and limit recruiting pressure on the prospective student-athlete."

What happens when a recruit signs a NLI is he or she is locked into that particular school. The player must attend the institution for at least one year or face a stiff, two-year loss of eligibility penalty.

Once you sign, there is virtually no way to not attend that school without incurring the penalty.

But the NLI does not guarantee the school you are signing with will save you a spot on the team, provide you with a full scholarship (although a separate financial aid requirement from the school should be provided at signing time) or even guarantee your acceptance into the institution as a student.

Essentially the recruit is guaranteeing the school is the only place for him, but the school is guaranteeing nothing. It can drop the recruit at any time.

"Clearly, this is a one-sided document in favor of the institutions," said Arn Tellem, president and CEO of SFX Basketball, an agency that counts Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady among its clients. "It requires a one-way commitment from the player and not a mutual commitment from the school. There is no commitment to even admit the player to the school."

In defense of the NLI, the document is voluntary, and though recruits often feel pressured to sign or lose a potential scholarship, they do not have to. Also, recruits under 21 must have the document co-signed by a parent or legal guardian.

"The prospective student-athlete does not have to sign the NLI," said Sandy Atkins, assistant director of the NLI. "The prospective student-athlete chooses to sign it."

If the athlete decides not to sign a letter, he or she risks the schools filling up their scholarship allotments without them.

The athlete has the right to merely enroll at the school without the letter ... but the coaching staff can simply say, "Sorry, we've already given out our scholarships to players who did sign letters of intent."

But here's the kicker: The schools can say that anyway.

It would hurt the school's recruiting reputation, probably a great deal, but it has happened: A school might sign six players to letters of intent despite having scholarships for only five ... and then later try to talk one of the players into walking on without the financial assistance.

Signing a letter of intent doesn't even protect a student-athlete from that.

The NLI has a comprehensive website -- www.national-letter.org -- that answers many questions, and though one-sided, the document is straightforward. There is no fine print.

"It is rare we get complaints before signing in comparison to the number of NLI that are signed," said Atkins, who works out of the offices of the Southeastern Conference in Birmingham, Ala. "Afterward, some want to get out of it and they call and complain."

For recruits, there are few benefits to signing.

The main result is it will stop other schools from recruiting you, ending the phone calls and courtship. And that is why the NLI was created, to bring some order to the recruiting process for schools. It basically was designed to stop schools from stealing each other's recruits.

"Once you sign it, all recruiting ceases," Atkins said. "The kid is not going to be called or kept on being recruited by other coaches."

But though a little peace and quiet might be appreciated, that could be attained by putting the burden of penalty on the coach, not the player. Certainly a less-punitive document could be used.

"It strikes me that the concern is an inability of the schools to trust each other and abide by the rules," said Lee. "If that is the case, then implement some penalties against schools that engage in that conduct.

"Let's say someone left because of some improper conduct," Lee continued. "Why not terminate the coach or assistant coach? Why can't they be held responsible? If you are going to have a kid forfeit the ability to participate, then why not forfeit the right of the coach to participate? If there is no disincentive to engage in that conduct, then (coaches) are going to do it."

Instead, in an effort to control coaches, the CCA has devised a system that punishes the teen-ager.

"Institutions spend time and money recruiting the student-athlete," Atkins said. "If the kid decides at the last moment to go to another school, then the institution is out their time and money after recruiting the prospective student athlete. It does work both ways."

Critics remain concerned about the appropriateness of powerful, often public, institutions of higher learning being involved in such a contract.

Though recruits should be aware of what they are signing, and the NLI isn't responsible for the misperception of what the document guarantees, just because a school can get away with it doesn't make it right.

The document is ostensibly voluntary, but many schools will balk at holding a scholarship for a recruit that is unwilling to sign.

"This is an example of when two parties of extremely unequal bargaining power, which happens between a major public university and a high school kid, come together," said Lee. "The powerful side often takes advantage of the situation."

A group of attorneys and sports agents, provided a copy of the 2002-03 NLI by SportsLine.com, all said they would discourage any client from signing such a document. They had additional concerns about the following sections:

4. Basic Penalty. I understand that if I do not attend the institution named within this document for one full academic year, and I enroll in another institution participating in the NLI program, I am not to represent the latter institution in intercollegiate athletics until I have completed two full academic years of residence at the latter institution. Further, I understand that I shall be charged with the loss of two seasons of intercollegiate athletics competition in all sports, except otherwise provided in this NLI. This is in addition to any eligibility expended at the institution at which I initially enrolled. "In the law, most contracts are forbidden from placing unduly harsh penalties in their provisions," Lee said. "If you work for a company, you might sign a non-compete clause and cannot work somewhere. But it doesn't say you can't work anywhere on planet earth for the next two years. It is not supposed to blow the party gaining something completely away."

Said Tellem: "The penalty phase is excessive. A two-year penalty is just extremely harsh."

6. Appeal Process. I understand that the NLI Steering Committee has been authorized to issue interpretations, settle disputes and consider petitions for a full release from the provisions of this NLI where there are extenuating circumstances. I further understand that its decision may be appealed to the NLI Appeals Committee, whose decision shall be final and binding. "That's pretty illusionary," Lee said. "In an appeal process, there ought to be some possibility that the player would win. The only criterion is extenuating circumstances that are not defined. In order to have a legal appeal, there ought to be some possibility of winning."

7-f. Letter Becomes Null and Void: Recruiting Rules Violation. If the institution (or a representative of its athletics interests) named in this document violated NCAA or conference rules while recruiting me, as found through the NCAA or conference enforcement process or acknowledged by the institution, this NLI shall be declared null and void. Such declaration shall not take place until all appeals to the NCAA or conference for restoration of eligibility have been conducted. "So there is no determination until all appeals are restored?" Lee said. "How long would that take? That is not going to happen quickly."

19. If Coach Leaves. I understand that I have signed this NLI with the institution and not for a particular sport or individual. For example, if the coach leaves the institution or the sports program, I remain bound by the provisions of this NLI. "This is a type of situation where the coach is the one who is usually crucial to cementing the relationship," Lee said. "It seems to me if the coach, who is an employee of the university, has the freedom to come and go, then the athlete should have the same freedom."

The basic advice for any student or parent about to sign a NLI is to be cautious and to contact the school and explore other options, including retaining an attorney to draft your agreement between recruit and school.

And if you feel you must sign to supposedly hold your place in a recruiting class -- even if the document does not guarantee you that spot -- do so after much contemplation.

"The only reason to sign this is if you may not have any place else to go and need to go to school somewhere," Lee said. "I think the schools understand they have this leverage, and they use it. For the players know this is the place you will want to go almost no matter what. If the coach leaves, if you are hurt or not, it is almost impossible to get out of it."

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