High school sports are exciting, but the stakes are even higher when college recruiters enter the equation.
How can you tell whether you’re seriously in the running for a spot on a college team? Two terms that can cause confusion for high schoolers looking to participate in college athletics are verbal commitment and National Letter of Intent. Here’s an overview of what you need to know:
The verbal commitment has become a trend in recent years. It refers to a non-binding agreement that can be made at any time by a college-bound student-athlete before she signs a National Letter of Intent. In theory, this oral agreement seems pretty simple: A prospective student-athlete verbally agrees to attend an institution and play on a given sports team, and a coach verbally agrees to give the student-athlete a scholarship and save a roster spot on her sports team.
In reality, however, the verbal commitment is not as cut-and-dried as it may seem.
There are a few advantages of making a verbal commitment. For one, it can be made at any time and without any restrictions. This literally means that an eighth-grader can make a verbal commitment.
Another advantage, especially for older student-athletes, is that making a verbal commitment can eliminate some of the anxiety associated with choosing a college or university to attend.
On the flip-side, there are a few disadvantages to making a verbal commitment — especially early in a student-athlete’s high school career. For instance, a high school freshman may feel increased pressure to perform given a college coach’s expectations that she improve her levels of skill and play.
Another disadvantage is that a student-athlete’s interests may change after she has made a verbal commitment. As students get older, their minds and interests may grow and change. It’s not uncommon for students to change their minds about colleges. What may have interested a student in tenth grade could very well be different by twelfth grade.
One key characteristic of a verbal commitment — and it can be both an advantage and a disadvantage — is that it is non-binding. Both parties (the prospective student-athlete as well as the college coach) may have a change of heart at any time. There have been times when a student-athlete has given a verbal commitment to University A, but when it came down to signing a National Letter of Intent and making the promise official, the student-athlete committed to and signed with University B. Conversely, there have been times when a coach has made a verbal commitment to a student-athlete, but then offered a National Letter of Intent to someone else.
Both are unfortunate instances, but they do happen. Although a college-bound student-athlete may announce a verbal commitment, it isn’t binding until she has signed a National Letter of Intent accompanied by athletic financial aid. Up to that point, neither the student-athlete nor the college or university is bound by the verbal commitment.
National Letter of Intent (NLI)
The National Letter of Intent is administered by the NCAA for Division I and II institutions. It is a voluntary program. By signing an NLI, a college-bound student-athlete must attend the participating college or university for at least one academic year, and that college or university must provide athletic financial aid for that same year. Take note that community colleges in the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) administer their own Letters of Intent; these are separate from those issued by the NCAA.
A prospective student-athlete is not required to sign a National Letter of Intent in order to join an athletics program at a given college or university. When offered an NLI, however, many choose to sign — they want to ensure that they’ll have a spot on the roster and receive athletic financial aid (i.e., an athletic scholarship). Even if a college-bound student-athlete makes a verbal commitment to an institution, that promise isn’t binding until she has signed an NLI.
Student-athletes can only sign a National Letter of Intent during specific periods of time; otherwise, the NLI will be invalid. See below for the signing periods for prospective student-athletes enrolling during the 2016–2017 collegiate school year:
Once you sign a National Letter of Intent, you are officially "off the market" and can no longer be recruited by any other college or university.
Signing an NLI does not guarantee that you will be a starter on a given team, nor does it guarantee that you will even play. The only thing that is certain — provided you have met the requirements set forth by the NCAA Eligibility Center and have been admitted to the institution with which you’re signing— is that you will receive an athletic scholarship.
If, for whatever reason, you are not granted admission to the institution you signed your National Letter of Intent with, the NLI becomes invalid. You will then be permitted to attend a new institution without incurring any of the penalties associated with reneging on an NLI.
If you are admitted to the institution for which you signed a National Letter of Intent and you either don’t fulfill the NLI requirements or decide to attend a different institution, you will be penalized. Generally, you will lose a year of eligibility, and if you go to a college or university that is an NLI member institution, you will have to attend that institution for a full year before you are eligible to compete in any sports. If, however, you ask for and receive a release from your original NLI institution, your penalty may be reduced or eliminated. Please note that an institution is not obligated to give you a release if you ask for it. If an institution does not grant you a release, however, you may appeal that decision to the NLI appeals committee.
A student-athlete signs a National Letter of Intent with a college or university and not with a specific coach. This is important to know — even if the coach who recruited you ends up leaving the school before you arrive on campus, you are still bound by the NLI to attend that college or university. While some institutions will release a student-athlete from her National Letter of Intent under certain circumstances and situations, this tends to be the exception rather than the norm.
Please be aware that even if you make a verbal commitment or sign a National Letter of Intent with a college or university, there is no guarantee that you will be attending that specific institution, or that you will be playing a sport there. A school’s admissions department has final say about whether or not you’ll be admitted.
Dixon, Chelsea L. (2015). Bridging the gap: A simple guide to college. Yardley, PA: Open Door.
NLI. National letter of intent. Retrieved from http://www.nationalletter.org