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Many Big Athletics Programs Fail to Protect Themselves From Fickle Recruits

Eddie Vanderdoes made headlines on Tuesday when he backed out of the National Letter of Intent he had signed to play football at Notre Dame. The 18-year-old defensive tackle from Auburn, Calif., broke the agreement so he could attend UCLA, where he will be closer to his family.

Notre Dame refused to release Vanderdoes from the agreement, so he must forfeit a year of eligibility before suiting up for the Bruins.

The National Letter of Intent—which one Sports Illustrated writer referred to this week as the “worst contract in American sports”—gives almost all the power to colleges in the high-stakes recruiting game. Once players sign the agreement, they forgo the right to be recruited by other colleges and face strict limits on transferring.

NCAA rules do not require players to sign a letter of intent, but many institutions ask athletes to do so when they sign their scholarship offers. The vast majority of players oblige, which gives colleges significant leverage.

But what if more players stopped signing the agreements? As it turns out, many colleges don’t have a strong mechanism to protect themselves against players who decide not to sign one. As elite recruits like Vanderdoes learn more about their rights, they could start to tilt the power more in their favor, making the recruiting process even more chaotic.

Earlier this year, The Chronicle collected athlete-aid agreements from 38 big-time programs. Fewer than half of those agreements include language that requires an accompanying letter of intent to be signed. (Certain institutions, including the University of Arizona, specify the need to sign the NLI in order to receive aid.)

For those universities without such language, there could be big implications. If a player signs a scholarship offer but doesn’t send back a letter of intent, the institutions could be stuck with the player while he continues to shop his services elsewhere, says John Infante, a former Division I compliance officer, who reviewed the agreements for The Chronicle.

If that started happening, we’d probably see a bunch of disgruntled coaches. “They want an end to the recruiting process,” Mr. Infante says. “They want the signature of the kid so they can stop putting time and effort into him and move onto the next kid or the next class.”

To prevent that sort of problem, some coaches have joined forces to ensure that the contracts continue to be enforced. According to ESPN’s Joe Schad, several football coaches urged Notre Dame and Florida State, which recently lost a high-profile recruit of its own, not to release incoming freshmen from their NLI’s.

The coaches feared that a precedent could be set, Schad reported, forcing staffs to continue to recruit incoming freshmen after they had already signed.

In most cases, the absence of letter-of-intent language probably won’t hurt institutions, as most players will sign anything to appease their new coach. (I can’t imagine it harming Alabama or Oregon, neither of which mentions the NLI in its aid agreements.)

“Ninety-nine times out of 100, the kid signs the agreement and none of the provisions are ever enforced,” Mr. Infante says. “But now, especially at these high levels of recruiting, you have the beginnings of pushback against it.”

Mr. Infante—who now works for Athnet, a service that helps prospects navigate the recruiting world—has proposed a few ideas for improving the National Letter of Intent.

Among his proposals are to make the agreement more flexible and player-friendly. He believes that if a student is willing to sign the contract, he should be rewarded with a minimum of two years of aid. If institutions are willing to offer only one-year scholarships, he doesn’t think they should expect athletes to sign a binding letter.

He also suggests a set of automatic releases that would have to be agreed on between the college and the prospect, including one that would let certain players out of their contracts if a head coach leaves or the program is put on probation.

“Players should be able to go elsewhere” without penalty, he says, “if they’re not getting what they’re promised.”

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