USA TODAY High School Sports has a weekly column on the college recruiting process. Here, you’ll find practical tips and real-world advice on becoming a better recruit to maximize your opportunities to play at the college level. Jaimie Duffek was one of the top 50 high school softball players in Illinois who went onto play outfield for Drake University. Jaimie is just one of many former college and professional players, college coaches, and parents who are part of the Next College Student Athlete team. Their knowledge, experience, and dedication along with NCSA’s history of digital innovation, and long-standing relationship with the college coaching community have made NCSA the largest and most successful athletic recruiting network in the country.
As April 11 approaches, thousands of coaches and athletes from around the country get ready for National Signing Day, a day where press conferences are scheduled, coaches’ phones ring off the hook, and star recruits ceremoniously don the hats of their chosen colleges. That’s because National Signing Day marks the date when college sports (besides football, soccer, and men’s water polo) open the period where student-athletes to commit to a college. The spotlight zeros in on high school athletes who are preparing to sign the National Letter of Intent (NLI), a document that’s as important as its name suggests.
What Is the National Letter of Intent?
The recruiting process of a high school athlete is typically punctuated by the actual signing of the National Letter of Intent (NLI), a legally binding contract that commits student-athletes to competing (and studying) at their future college. The letter was created in the 1960s by a group of college athletic conferences to help organize the recruiting process. Back then, recruiting was rife with uncertainty—athletes would receive scholarship offers well into their senior year and programs would steal athletes from each other even after they had enrolled in college. It was a mess.
Colleges and athletes both wanted some stability in the process, so the National Letter of Intent was created. This way, both students and colleges had something more dependable than handshake agreements. Athletes could finish out their time in high school without worrying about where they were attending next year. College coaches could plan out their rosters ahead of time and make sure they had recruited enough athletes. Today, about 650 NCAA DI and DII schools use the National Letter of Intent, even though it is not directly affiliated with the NCAA.
What Signing a National Letter of Intent Means
From the day that the National Letter of Intent is issued, a student-athlete and their legal guardian have seven days to sign and return the document—after this period, the document becomes invalid. Once the NLI is signed, a high school senior effectively ends their college recruiting process. It’s a big moment that comes as a result of a lot of hard work, but it’s also important to know what it means. By signing, a student-athlete commits to one year at the college and the school must let them know if their scholarship is renewed after the first year. The college also promises to provide an athletic scholarship for that year and no other colleges can continue to recruit the student-athlete.
However, signing an NLI does not necessarily mean a student-athlete has been admitted to college—they still have to meet admission requirements. Also, if an athlete has signed the NLI and wishes to attend another college, they have to ask for a release from the program. If it’s not granted, they’ll have to sit out a season and lose one year of eligibility. (But they could still play for a junior college or NAIA school.) Walk-ons do not need to sign an NLI.
The entire process can be quite nerve-racking, so it’s important to be prepared for the moment and conduct research ahead of time. The decision is not only about where a student-athlete will be competing for the near future, but also about what kind of education and college experience they’ll be receiving. They’ll want to ask questions about what kind of role they’ll have on the team—whether they’ll be playing regularly or observing from the bench for a few years. They should know what scholarship amount they’ll be offered, and how much of their tuition and expenses it will offset. They should also consider whether they’d enjoy attending the school if they weren’t playing sports, because not every student-athlete ends up playing sports for four years in college. With a binding agreement, it makes sense to ask as many questions as possible to make sure the right decision is made.
What National Signing Day Means for Underclassmen
While many seniors may be signing their NLIs and celebrating, the day is also an important marker for underclassmen. Freshmen who are serious about competing in college can gauge if they’ve had any interest from college coaches yet, or if they need to start becoming more proactive about their college sports career. That goes double for sophomores, who are one year closer to graduation. However, juniors will really start to feel the crunch because in many ways junior year is the most important for recruitment. Juniors who are serious about college sports will have already exchanged phone calls and emails with coaches, and maybe even had campus visits. Once National Signing Day passes and most seniors pick their colleges, the torch is passed to the junior class, who now become the focus of attention for recruiters and college coaches looking to fill out next year’s roster. This is the time to schedule camps, combines, tournaments, and showcases, and continue to stay on top of any calls and communication with college programs. Regardless of whether you’re a freshman hopeful or a senior committed to a big program, National Signing Day should be an important date on every athlete’s calendar.