Wave goodbye to the NLI?

Yesterday, I asked (and answered, sort of) whether early eligibility would be the newest hot trend in basketball recruiting. That answer: probably not. Some players eager to begin their college careers will try it in greater numbers in the coming years, to be sure, but it's unlikely the practice will morph into anything beyond a rarity.

If we're looking for a new recruiting trend that could stick, a more likely candidate is the dwindling importance of the NLI -- National Letter of Intent. The NLI is a binding, voluntary agreement between recruits and schools which officially ends a player's recruitment and ties them to that school for a year's time. Players who want to switch schools thanks to, say, a coaching change, have to ask the school for a waiver of that letter which the school can either grant or refuse. The NLI was designed to make it so that players couldn't be hassled by opposing coaches after they'd signed somewhere else; I can imagine few things more annoying than a coach desperately recruiting you even after you've spurned him. But in the modern game, the national letter of intent might have outlasted its usefulness (at least for premier prospects).

Basketball Prospectus writer and Big Ten Geek Josh Reed wrote about the subject for B-Pro today. Reed makes the case well:

Expect to see more NLI brush-offs by top talent in the future. For one thing the one-and-done rule adds uncertainties related to playing time. Second, the coaching carousel just keeps getting faster and faster, which results in more volatile coaching situations. [...] How to fix this? Well, at least one part seems obvious to me: Listen to DeMarcus Cousins. Allow NLI's to be voided if the coach is no longer at the school. The NCAA’s intent--that NLI's focus on the recruit's education, rather than the coach or team--is idealistic but not very pragmatic. Given that head coaches rely on assistant coaches rather than heads of English departments to recruit players, I think it’s safe to say that the players are by and large choosing schools based on how the basketball team is managed. Furthermore conference rules forbidding other teams from snagging newly-released players aren't doing much good. The most likely outcome is simply that these players are driven against their own preference to play in another conference.

The larger point here concerns an imbalance of flexibility. Coaches -- who just so happen to be paid millions of dollars to recruit this talent to their schools -- can effectively leave one program for another at any time. Players, on the other hand, are bound to their schools regardless of whether the coach decides to leave. If you have one year at a school, you're going to want to play for the coach that recruited you. Heck, if you have four years at a school, the same applies. In the NLI system, programs maintain control over their players and can determine those players' futures whether the players like it or not. It's unfair. And if more recruits decide to forgo their letter of intent and do what Brandon Knight did -- Knight signed a financial aid form instead -- hopefully the practice causes conferences and the NCAA to reconsider the ways players are treated.

It's bad enough most college athletes get little more than a scholarship while they generate millions for their coaches, schools and conferences. Those players deserve greater freedom to decide where that exploitative relationship will happen.