DeCock

Letter of intent in college athletics is faulty

Staff WriterAugust 8, 2010 

Across the country, thousands of athletic recruits only months removed from their high school graduations are arriving on college campuses to begin practice for fall sports like football and women's soccer.

More than a few of those new athletes will be met on campus by new coaches, the people who fought so hard for the signature on their National Letter of Intent having left for a better job or been fired by the school.

The new coaches may not want them, may not even like them, but there's no way out for the students. Their letters of intent tie them to that school no matter what happens to the people who actually recruited them.

Most of the time, schools are willing to release recruits from their letters in the case of a coaching change, but they're under no obligation and don't always. It's time for that to change.

"[A recruit has] developed a relationship with a coaching staff," Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "They should be given the opportunity they want. You made the change, pay the price for making the change. Paying the price is having to re-recruit whatever recruits you have, and if they don't want to go to your school, we should release them and let them go wherever they want."

In the past year, there have been 24 head coaching changes at the FBS level of football, 53 at the Division I level for men's basketball and 32 for women's basketball. That's more than 13 percent turnover in those three sports - 20 percent in football alone.

Coaches are being paid more than ever. They're also being held to higher standards than ever. The combination of the two means more mobility, upward and downward, for college coaches than ever before. Recruits, though, are tied to a school no matter what happens to the coaching staff.

"In that case, yes, a kid should be able to change his mind and go to another school," N.C. State basketball coach Sidney Lowe said. "You go to a school to play for that coach."

The National Letter of Intent system is built on the foundation that a recruit signs with a school, not with a coach. And let's not gloss over the benefits the letter of intent offers: freedom from constant recruitment by other coaches and a guaranteed scholarship. For some, that agreement is perfectly reasonable

"Kids are going to a school because they want to get a degree from that institution, they want to be a graduate of that school, and as you've seen in the case of Southern Cal, two kids got released from their scholarships, for whatever reason," North Carolina football coach Butch Davis said. "Institutions have the ability to release guys if they so choose, and if they don't, kids should have made a wiser decision."

But the notion that coaches aren't integral to the process is as naive as it is archaic. That very ability to recruit is a big reason some coaches are getting seven-figure salaries, Davis included.

The penalty for backing out of a letter of intent is draconian: an immediate year of lost eligibility. Not all schools are willing to push that hard, but some will. Western Carolina did with women's basketball recruit Kelsey Evans, a Wakefield High product, last summer.

Evans wanted to play for Kellie Harper, but when Harper left for N.C. State, Evans wanted to go to school closer to home. The school allowed her to explore her options, but when she chose Elon - another Southern Conference school - Western Carolina refused to release her.

It took a lawsuit challenging the legality of the entire letter-of-intent system to gain Evans' freedom - she averaged 7.9 points and 7.2 rebounds as a freshman at Elon last season - and she's far from alone.

"I've been getting calls ever since the Kelsey Evans case from all over the country, consulting with lawyers on similar situations," said Raleigh lawyer Richard Gusler, who represented Evans.

Making changes won't be easy. The NCAA administers the National Letter of Intent program but keeps it at arm's length. Only the Collegiate Commissioners Association has the power to make changes.

Nevertheless, it's time to acknowledge the way college athletics work today and give recruits a way out when the coaches who recruited them are gone before they get there.

luke.decock@newsobserver.com, twitter.com/LukeDeCock or 919-829-8947

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