By: Marie Bussey

April 1, 2015

With coaches leaving the storied football programs at Ohio State, UCLA, Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, LSU, and Notre Dame within days of each other earlier this month, one has to wonder, what’s with the trend?  The bitter buzz on Twitter in the immediate aftermath of National Signing Day suggests this mass exodus reflects a growing problem in college football that is leaving many college athletes feeling harmed and without recourse.

Signing LOI

Photo Credit: www.waow.com

High-Profile Players Feeling Cheated
In one of the most public examples, Mike Weber, a top running back recruit from Detroit, agonized over his decision between longtime rivals Michigan and Ohio State.[1]  The night before signing day, Ohio State’s running backs coach, Stan Drayton, persuaded Weber to stick with Ohio State[2], so when Weber learned the day after he signed that Drayton was heading to the NFL, he took to Twitter to let the world know that he felt hurt and deceived.[3]

In a similar story, newly-signed Texas defensive end Du’Vonta Lampkin tweeted “guess I was lied to” when he learned Texas’ defensive line coach was leaving the program just two days after signing day.[4]

Available Remedies?
Weber and Lampkin are just two high-profile examples.  Nearly twenty schools saw coaches leave just after signing day.[5]  So besides venting on Twitter, what recourse do these players have?  Unfortunately, the law affords little, if any, remedy.  Weber and Lampkin each signed a National Letter of Intent (NLI), which requires explicitly acknowledging that the agreement is “with the institution and not for a particular sport or coach.”[6]  The same clause further notes that “[i]f a coach leaves the institution or the sports program . . . , [the player] remain[s] bound by the provisions.”[7]  Although both Weber and Lampkin relied on verbal promises from the coaches for whom they intended to play, the parol evidence rule dictates that the signed letter of intent supersedes any conflicting prior promises made by the coaches, including a coach’s promise to stay.[8]

Under the terms of the letter of intent, Weber and Lampkin can either set aside their hard feelings and play for the schools where they signed, or they can transfer and lose a year of eligibility.[9]  Given the high profile of both college programs and the prospect of losing a year of football, both players are likely to do what most athletes do in their position: stay where they signed.

Foregoing the Letter of Intent
In retrospect, Weber and Lampkin probably wish they had done what Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith did earlier this month.  When Smith heard rumors that the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons were courting UCLA’s defensive coordinator, Smith called up his future coach, Jeff Ulbrich, seeking reassurance that Ulbrich was staying at UCLA.[10]  After receiving such assurance, Smith announced at a press conference that he was committed to UCLA.[11]  When reports linking Ulbrich and the Falcons continued, however, Smith opted not to sign a letter of intent, so when Ulbrich did in fact leave for the Falcons four days after signing day, Smith had the option to change his mind, and he did.[12]  Just over a week after National Signing Day, Smith signed a financial aid agreement with the University of Georgia.[13]  By opting to sign a financial aid agreement instead of a letter of intent, Smith remains protected “from being tied to [Georgia] if the Bulldogs have any unexpected coaching changes before he enrolls in June.”[14]

NLI Changes Coming?
While some suggest that Smith’s “actions could set off a trend[,]”[15] others argue for change in the NLI system[16].  While Smith, the 29th ranked recruit in the nation[17], had the option of refusing to sign a letter of intent, most college football prospects do not wield this type of bargaining power.[18]  While former Texas football coach Mack Brown suggests all players should have a one-week grace period to change their minds[19], Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez advocates eliminating signing day altogether[20].  Still others advocate adding a clause to allow players to change schools if the coach leaves after signing.[21]  In fact, Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari used to include such a clause for his players, but had to stop the practice when the NCAA determined the clause was a violation.[22]

According to rivals.com, the trend of coaches leaving after signing day is nothing new, but this year, it was much more transparent.[23]  Whether that transparency will ultimately lead to change remains to be seen, but for now, the situation for players can be summed up succinctly in the words of sports writer Kevin McGuire: “It stinks, but it’s not changing anytime soon.”[24]


 

[1] Zach Hefland, Is the college letter of intent the ‘worst contract in American sports’?, Los Angeles Times (Feb. 13, 2015, 6:10 PM), http://www.latimes.com/sports/la-sp-0214-football-recruiting-lies-20150214-story.html#page=1.

[2] Mark Schlabach, Time for escape clause for recruits?, ESPN (Feb. 11, 2015), http://espn.go.com/college-football/story/_/id/12308125/coaching-changes-national-signing-day-unfair-football-recruiting.

[3] Bob Hunter, Mike Weber saga shows ugly side of college recruiting, The Columbus Dispatch (Feb. 8, 2015, 12:41 PM), http://buckeyextra.dispatch.com/content/stories/2015/02/08/0208-hunter-column-on-osu-football-recruiting-fiasco.html.

[4] Hefland, supra note 1.

[5] Schlabach, supra note 2.

[6] National Letter of Intent: Coaching Changes, http://www.nationalletter.org/nliProvisions/coachingChange.html (last visited Feb. 22, 2015).

[7] Id.

[8] Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 213 (1981).

[9] National Letter of Intent: Basic Penalty, http://www.nationalletter.org/nliProvisions/penaltyBasic.html (last visited Feb. 22, 2015).

[10] Hefland, supra note 1.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Gerry Hamilton, Roquan Smith chooses Georgia, ESPN (Feb. 13, 2015, 12:39 PM), http://espn.go.com/college-sports/recruiting/football/story/_/id/12320035/roquan-smith-chooses-georgia-bulldogs-ucla-bruins.

[14] Id.

[15] Graham Watson, Georgia coach says he agrees with Roquan Smith’s decision not to sign an NLI, Yahoo! Sports (Feb. 16, 2015, 6:07 PM), http://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/ncaaf-dr-saturday/georgia-coach-says-he-agrees-with-roquan-smith-decision-not-to-sign-an-nli-230718336.html?soc_src=mediacontentsharebuttons&soc_trk=ma.

[16] Schlabach, supra note 2.

[17] Hamilton, supra note 13.

[18] Hefland, supra note 1.

[19] Schlabach, supra note 2.

[20] Id.

[21] Hefland, supra note 1.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Kevin McGuire, Georgia HS coach rips college programs that lie during recruiting, NBC Sports (Feb. 8, 2015, 11:46 AM), http://collegefootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2015/02/08/georgia-hs-coach-rips-college-programs-that-lie-during-recruiting.

 

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