The National Letter of Intent is synonymous with the recruiting process. It is the agreed-upon end of recruiting, when a prospect has firmly and bindingly committed to a school and the school to the prospect. The assumption is that a prospect offered an athletic scholarship will sign an NLI. That assumption is so strong that even prospects who are being recruited as walk-ons sometimes ask for something similar to sign just to feel that same experience.
As more and more people point out when disputes arise between prospects and institutions over the NLI, the NLI is optional for recruits. The NLI grants few additional benefits to a prospect over signing an athletic financial aid agreement. When they work well, the two documents balance each other out: the pro-athlete scholarship agreement and the pro-institution NLI. When they do not work well, the NLI gets most of the blame.
What fewer people know is that the NLI is optional for institutions. Universities that do not offer athletic scholarships like the Ivy League and service academies are not part of the NLI program. The NCAA rules contemplate other letter of intent programs by making sure none are permitted to sign before the NLI signing periods. The Ivies and service academies are not bound by the NLI, but are very different institutions than say the SEC. What if some of the big boys gave up on the NLI?
It is unlikely a single institution would be able to leave the NLI. Some conferences include in their membership requirements that members must commit to the NLI program. Those that do not have this requirement would almost immediately add it if one institution tried to avoid complying with the NLI while its conference mates abided by it.
If a major conference left the NLI, then those institutions would be able to keep recruiting signees of other conferences. The recruiting ban and basic NLI penalty would not apply to those schools. Signees of other conference would be fair game until their enrolled. On the flip side, prospects which signed with the conference schools would have the same privilege; they could be recruited by NLI member institutions without penalty as well.
What would likely not happen is the conference members recruiting against each other after signing. If the conference opted out of the NLI, it may develop and administer its own conference letter of intent program. In addition, many intra-conference transfer policies extend to recruits who have signed athletic grant-in-aid agreements. These create a penalty similar to the NLI penalty, requiring student-athletes to sit out for a year or two and in some cases charging them with a season of competition.
Could it work? Probably not. If the conference which left the NLI was not strong enough in recruiting to fend off flipping of its recruits, especially in football and men’s basketball, the conference would quickly return to the NLI program. If the conference was strong enough, one of two things would happen. Other conferences might follow suit, which would eventually lead to the end of the NLI, replaced with a series of conference rules. Alternatively, the other conferences might bring the rouge league back to the NLI program by tying it even closer to NCAA rules and making participation mandatory, either in Division I or at least FBS.
It is unlikely any conference would try such a challenge to the NLI. But thinking about it highlights how much the NLI is based on everyone agreeing to it. Just like the NLI loses much of its weight if top prospects refuse to sign it or are comfortable with breaking the agreement, the NLI exists so long as all of Division I or FBS sees the value in a single, national agreement designed to end the recruiting process. If the isolated incidents of prospects challenging the conventional wisdom of the NLI becomes a trend, it will be interesting to see how long the resolve to keep the NLI holds amongst the conferences.