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'Notional' Letter of Intent: College Football Offers More Than It Can Deliver, Part 1

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"Notional" Letter of Intent: College Football Offers More Than It Can Deliver, Part 1

By: Justin N. Fielkow

This week, young men across the country signed their National Letters of Intent, a momentous occasion and tremendous achievement in their lives. Unfortunately, for some, both the process and the conclusion will not be what they envisioned. This is the first of a three-part series that will analyze the National Letter of Intent system and the concept of oversigning in major college football. This post will provide a general introduction to the history and rules governing the National Letter of Intent and the doctrine of oversigning in college football. Part Two will then analyze the legality and potential remedies of oversigning, including a promissory estoppel cause of action and breach of contract claim. Finally, Part Three will put the ethics and morality of the practice of oversigning, as it relates to the current world of big-money college football, on figurative trial.

Introduction to Oversigning: How It Works and How It Fails

With nothing more than a wish and a prayer that a university will honor its scholarship offer to a prospective student-athlete, countless young men, such as Elliot Porter, have their verbal commitments vanish into thin air due to the unsavory practice of oversigning.1  Elliot Porter received a scholarship offer to play football at Louisiana State University in the summer of 2009. In July, Porter was one of the first verbal commitments to LSU's 2010 recruiting class.2  In February 2010, Porter signed a National Letter of Intent (NLI) with LSU, qualified academically, enrolled early, reported to summer school in June 2010, and started taking classes.3  Yet, after misjudging how many of his academically shaky signees would qualify and reaching the maximum 25-new-player scholarship limit, head coach Les Miles informed Porter that there was no room for him on scholarship at LSU.4  Porter was granted a release from his Letter of Intent and instead accepted a scholarship at the University of Kentucky.5  Porter disliked Kentucky and returned to LSU, where he is now a walk-on paying his own way for two years before he can finally get the football scholarship LSU promised him as a high school senior.6

Porter's situation is not unique. Often, the unlikely-to-contribute players at the bottom of an incoming class are asked to "grayshirt," dutifully delaying their enrollment (or paying their way for a semester), until there is room for them in the next class, regardless of what a coach promised them during their recruitment or the fact that they signed an NLI. Additionally, every year "thousands" of high school seniors find themselves scrambling for scholarships after coaches simply rescind non-binding scholarship offers because they found more talented players and are forced to comply with the NCAA's signing limits.7

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