The Basics

National Letter of Intent (NLI) 

The basic premise of the National Letter of Intent (NLI) program is to provide certainty in the recruiting process. Most colleges that offer NCAA Division I and II athletic scholarships use the NLI. Ivy League institutions and the service academies (Army, Navy, etc.) participate in Division I athletics but offer no athletic scholarships.  No Division III schools, NAIA schools, junior colleges or preparatory schools are members of the NLI Program. However, many NAIA institutions and junior colleges do use a Letter of Intent, implemented either by the national association, their individual conferences, or even individual schools.
     In actuality, the Collegiate Commissioners Association (CCA), not the NCAA, administers the National Letter of Intent Program. Since its birth in 1964, when its members included seven conferences and eight institutions, the membership of the NLI Program has grown to include over 50 conferences and 500 institutions. 
    
Signing the National Letter of Intent, in effect, ends the recruiting process.  Member schools agree to not pursue a student-athlete once she signs an NLI with another institution; however, in actuality, not all college coaches abide by this part of the agreement. After signing an NLI, the prospect is also ensured an athletic scholarship for one academic year.  An institutional financial aid agreement accompanies the NLI.  If the student-athlete does not enroll at that school for a complete academic year, she could be penalized, with the possibility of losing up to two seasons of eligibility.
     During each academic year, the early signing period is the first of two designated time periods during which a recruit can sign a National Letter of Intent.  It lasts for one week in November. Although a college can offer a scholarship before November, the recruit cannot sign that official letter until the early signing period.  Without a doubt, colleges want their top recruits to sign on the dotted line during the early signing period.
     Each year, more women’s basketball athletes commit during the early signing period.  They then have one of the most stressful decisions of their lives out of the way, and they can relax and enjoy the rest of their senior years.  Some feel pressured that if they do not sign early, their scholarships will be offered to others, especially if they do not have stellar senior seasons. They may also worry about injuries. However, they have the chance of increasing their scholarship opportunities by waiting. Proponents of the late signing period argue that girls do not have enough time to get to know coaches and programs by November.
     The late signing period is the other only time on the recruiting calendar during which a recruit can sign a National Letter of Intent for an NCAA institution for the following academic year. The late period runs from mid-April to mid-May.
     Monday through Thursday of the early and late signing periods, as well as the time surrounding the NCAA Women’s Final Four, are dead periods.  With the exception of telephone calls, email, and snail mail correspondence, no recruiting activity may take place during these times.
     The NLI agreement is null if a student-athlete signs it on a day outside of the early or late signing period.  During the signing period, a college coach or representative cannot hand-deliver the NLI off-campus to a recruit. The NLI can be delivered via regular mail, express mail, courier, or fax, or while a recruit is on campus for an official or unofficial visit.
     A student-athlete signs a National Letter of Intent with an institution and not with a specific team or coach.  If the coach who recruited her leaves, the NLI is still valid and she is still bound to the school for one year.  
     If a high school prospect signs a National Letter of Intent and then changes her mind, it’s not as easy as just signing another piece of paper.  If she does not attend the school with which she first signed, or if she does not satisfy the terms of the NLI Program, she loses two years of eligibility at the next NLI institution.  Although she can receive athletics aid and/or practice at another NLI school, she must sit two years “in residence” at that college.  However, if the school that she left agrees to enter into a Qualified Release Agreement, the penalty is reduced from two years to one.  The original school is not required to provide the student with the Qualified Release Agreement. However, many coaches will grant a release if a player wishes to leave.
     There is a big difference between the National Letter of Intent and other Letters of Intent, such as those used by NAIA schools or junior colleges.  If a recruit signs an NLI and later decides to instead enroll at an NAIA institution or junior college, there are no penalties.  The reverse is also true – if she signs a Letter of Intent at an NAIA school or junior college, she can change her mind and later sign a National Letter of Intent without having to sit out for a year.  Only after signing an NLI and then changing from one NCAA Division I or II institution to another would she lose a season or seasons of eligibility.
     When a prospect signs a National Letter of Intent, she is guaranteed athletic financial aid for one academic year at that institution and nothing more.  She does not automatically get quality playing time. In fact, she is not even assured a spot on the team roster.  By attending the college with which she signed for at least one academic year, and not just by completing one playing season at that school, she satisfies the NLI.  Unlike institutional athletic scholarships, which do need to be offered and renewed every year, an athlete only signs a National Letter of Intent once.
     Although recruits do not have to sign a National Letter of Intent, most do. Once they do, the program that they have signed with must give them a scholarship the next year, and other NLI schools can technically no longer recruit them.
     Recruiting rules state that after a prospect signs a National Letter of Intent, the school with which she signed can have an unlimited number of contacts with her.  

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Net Prospect: The Courting Process of Women's College Basketball Recruiting - by Lisa Liberty Becker