Coaches Transferring after Student Athletes Sign a National Letter of Intent

Roquan Smith’s high school coach aptly puts it, “If you’re married to your wife, you don’t commit to a house. You commit to your wife in that house.” That sums up why some athletes accept scholarships from particular schools- to be trained under a coach and not to attend that particular school. The glitch is: What do you do if, after you commit to the school, you find out that the coach is no more with the school? This sums up the dilemma of most high school athletes who sign a National Letter of Intent (“NLI”) with an institute only to realize that, after they have signed it, the coach has departed for another institute. The NLI locks them up with the school and then there is no escape.

Yes, the NLI is binding, at least unless the court says it is not for being unconscionable! The National Letter of Intent is an agreement between a prospective student athlete and a prospective NLI school wherein the athlete agrees to attend the institution for at least one year and the school agrees to provide for financial aid for a year. If the athlete breaches the NLI, he loses one season of competition in all sports. The daily operations of the NLI are managed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”) as the NCAA is responsible for regulating athletes.

Although the doors of the court are open to all those who seek justice, it is not the easiest thing for an athlete to knock those doors. There is no guarantee of success and the long time that the court might take to decide the matter may cause the athlete to lose a year of his or her valuable career. The NLI is a take-it-or-leave it contract and is binding unless the court declares it to be unconscionable or contrary to public interest. The terms may not be unconscionable in the eyes of the court if it does not satisfy the standard required by the court.

High school footballer Smith was torn between UCLA and Georgia. On coach Harold’s advice, Smith did not fax the NLI to the school until he was a hundred percent sure about it. Shortly after his announcement, UCLA defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich took up a position with the Atlanta Falcons. “[It was n]othing but an act of God,” Harold quoted. Smith has now refused to sign an NLI not only with UCLA, but with any other school.

The NCAA website states that the NLI program is voluntary. But the question is whether all athletes have the bargaining power to refuse signing an NLI. Only the top level athletes can afford to refuse signing an NLI as the rest of the athletes risk that the institute would choose another athlete in their place. National College Players Association President Ramogi Huma, formerly linebacker at UCLA, opined that some athletes do not think that the institute can take advantage of them. “They do not realize that if you do not rock the boat, you might be hit by the boat,” he added.

A wise solution here would be to scrap the standard form of contract and make a fresh agreement every single time. The athletes could then include a clause making it clear that they are bound by the agreement as long as the coach sticks around with the institute. Irrespective of this, future athletes should read the document painstakingly well, do their research about the coach as well as the institute and ensure they are making the right choice.

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