Ron Morris

Morris: Student-athletes should skip the dotted line on signing day

THE NATIONAL Letter of Intent that nearly every high school recruit in a major college sport signs to attend college is a matter of trust. Or, that is the way Ramogi Huma sees it.

Huma is president of the National College Players Association, an up-and-coming organization that has been fighting the past few years to increase the virtually non-existent rights of college athletes.

“The letter of intent is for the school, not the player,” says Huma, who was a keynote speaker this week during a “Conference on College Sport,” part of USC’s College Sport Research Institute. “The player has to trust the school (will follow through with its scholarship offer).”

That lack of two-way trust is reason enough for Huma to believe the National Letter of Intent should be either abolished or, at the very least, re-written to allow prospective athletes some bargaining leverage.

“There is no upside for players to sign the letter of intent,” Huma says. “The letter of intent binds a player to the university, but it does not bind the university to the player.”

It works this way: A prospective athlete is recruited by several schools and, on a designated National Signing Day, inks a contract with the university he or she chooses. That National Letter of Intent contract binds the athlete to that university, and effectively ends the recruiting process. Once signed, other programs no longer are allowed to recruit that player.

Conversely, the contract does not bind the university to the athlete. As occasionally happens, an athletics program will over-recruit and exceed its number of scholarship offers. In that case, the program might request that an athlete be “gray-shirted.” That means the prospective athlete will attend the school for one semester, pay his or her own tuition, then be eligible for a scholarship the following semester.

Should an athlete not want to be “gray-shirted,” he or she would have to pay tuition for an entire year, then transfer to another school where another year on the sideline would be required.

The other possibility is for the university to grant a letter of release, but if the athlete is highly touted, that is not likely to happen. With a letter of release, an athlete is free to transfer to another school.

A recent case occurred with 6-foot-6 Dreher High shooting guard Tevin Mack. In November, Mack committed to play basketball at Virginia Commonwealth and signed a National Letter of Intent. Then, in the first week of April, VCU coach Shaka Smart left to take the same position at Texas.

Mack wanted to open his recruiting process once Smart departed, but he was at VCU’s mercy. Eventually, VCU accepted Mack’s request and released him from his letter of intent.

Not all schools are as willing to grant the release.

“If players change their minds,” Huma says, “the school can hold them hostage.”

Beyond the actual signing of the National Letter of Intent, Huma says the issue extends to not allowing prospective athletes the basic rights of ordinary citizens.

“It kind of represents a system that really is rigid, and you don’t have any say, a voice or a seat at the table to navigate through it,” says Huma, who believes prospective athletes should be allowed to employ legal representation or an advising agent before signing a document with a university. The NCAA does not permit either.

Until those rules are changed, Huma says top-level recruits never should sign a National Letter of Intent. According to Huma, the athlete should inform the school that he fully intends to attend, but he does not want to discontinue the recruiting process.

“All the National Letter of Intent does is secure the university’s hold on you,” Huma says. “That’s it’s only function. So, if you’re a top recruit and you have options, don’t sign.”

The next step for athletes would be to somehow get all top 100 recruits in one particular sport, say football, to agree that they will collectively not sign a National Letter of Intent for one year.

In so doing, the athletes will be asking to be trusted on their decision. That would be a turnabout, for sure.