Published on October 22, 2021
Many have seen the news features where a high school student sits at a table, adorned by balloons and surrounded by their family, anxiously awaiting their decision about where they will play college sports. It’s National Signing Day and a student’s college choice is shown in sweatshirts and hats and banners as their high school coach and family clap with enthusiasm.
But for many student-athletes in this situation, this day was a long time coming, and quite possibly a sense of relief after many stressful car rides, long flights, and late nights. Maybe college coaches were in the stands or sidelines for years, there were official visits, or even living room chats hoping that would be the day the commitment would come.
However, not everyone has an elaborate display to announce their next move after high school sports come to an end. The reality is many students around the country will quietly join college sports teams without an NLI and yet make a large impact on the team, leaving their name in the record books.
An NLI is a binding agreement between the high school student-athlete and the college or university. By signing, the student is promising to not only attend that college after high school, but they will also stop all communication with other college coaches who might have been recruiting them as well (or hope to in the future).
Once you sign that paper, your recruiting journey is done! You’ve made a promise to go there for one year, and the college or university you are signing with has promised to give you an athletic scholarship (athletics financial aid or Grant in Aid) for one academic year or two full-time semesters.
You will only sign an NLI once, and once you are at your college, your grant in aid will be a 1-year commitment from the school to you, and you will need to sign that document yearly. Likewise, the school will need to renew your athletic scholarship, or non-renew it, yearly.
A National Letter of Intent (NLI) is not necessary to play college sports, and neither is an athletic scholarship or Grant In Aid. Plenty of professional athletes (and even Olympians!) did not sign NLI’s or get an athletic scholarship in college. Students don’t need to “sign” with a college or promise a college coach to eventually play college sports. However, for those who do commit to a college, there is a lot to learn before that big day in your kitchen or school gym where you proudly display your new college mascot.
Here are some things to keep in mind as NLI Signing Day approaches.
While not every college in the country is part of the NLI program, 652 NCAA DI and DII schools are. You aren’t required to sign an NLI and a college is not required to be part of the program.
An NLI MUST be accompanied by an athletic scholarship; walk-ons, recruited walk-ons, and non-scholarship students will not sign an NLI.
Students who sign “commitment letters” not bound by the NLI program are not guaranteed a scholarship. An NLI is not a handshake or friendly verbal commitment of “I’d love to play for you!” Instead, this is a contract between you and the college or university. This is why the decision to sign an NLI should not be taken lightly.
What is important here is that the coach is not tied to this agreement. The NLI binds you, the student-athlete, to the college, not to the coach. If the coach who recruited you leaves and you have signed an NLI, you are still bound to attend that college, even after a new coaching staff has been hired.
Typically, there are penalties for breaking an NLI without being granted a complete release from the institution. However, the Collegiate Commissioners Association is implementing several adjustments that will go into affect during the 2024-25 recruiting period. The changes reportedly include the following:
If a student-athlete wants to switch to a different school after they’ve signed an NLI, they might face a penalty if they are requesting to leave for reasons not listed above. If that happens, the athlete is required to sit out of competition for one year and must complete one year of residency at their next institution.
The NLI will come to your house either by express mail, courier, regular mail, email, or fax. You can use all of these ways to send the NLI back to your college. A parent or legal guardian must sign the NLI with you. The college should send you two copies. Sign both and send one back to the college, and keep one for yourself. You only have 7 days to sign the NLI so make sure to watch that calendar! Dates for your sport’s NLI Signing dates are found below.
Many things can happen between NLI Signing Day and the first day of freshman year. Ideally, you have already applied to the college of your choice and have gained admission before you sign an NLI. This is often not the case. Some NLI signing dates occur in the Fall of your high school senior year, long before some colleges send out admissions acceptance offers and financial aid packages.
It is important to keep track of your academics as you decide where to commit. If you’re denied admission to your college of choice, the NLI no longer applies. If you fail to meet the NCAA Initial Eligibility requirements, your NLI is also no longer valid.
Making verbal promises to a coach or declaring your decision to attend a college on Twitter after a great 9th-grade game is one thing. But when you choose to sign an NLI and accept a scholarship you are making a long-term decision.
Make sure to think about the pros and cons of each school, ask a lot of questions, get to know the whole coaching staff, and inquire about the college and the community outside of the Athletic Department. These are more important factors than the color of the jersey or the brand of shoe you’ll wear.
By Courtney Rickard, Honest Game Director of Academics and Compliance
As a former Senior Associate Athletic Director at the NCAA Division I level and with more than 20 years of experience in collegiate athletics, Courtney has advised thousands of student-athletes through the college recruiting and eligibility process for college sports. Interested in virtual counseling with Courtney? Sign up here.