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What is college recruiting's National Letter of Intent?

Here's how the program that has built National Signing Day works.

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

On February 4, thousands of high school football players across the country will sign their National Letters of Intent (NLIs) to finalize where they will be spending their next year in college. Signing events involving big schools are the most visible, but students will sign to play at schools across all levels of the sport (and other sports, too).

While the signing of the NLI is the ultimate binding agreement, the shenanigans surrounding it have made National Signing Day even more of a big deal. The hat dance has become popular, but more exotic signing antics have even included the assistance of puppies.

So what exactly is the National Letter of Intent, and why do we make such a big deal out of it?

What is the National Letter of Intent?

It's a document an athlete signs to declare that he or she will be attending a specific school for a year. The letter of intent is not an offer of admission from a school, but it is binding, so if an athlete wants to change schools after signing, he or she must receive a release form from the school.

The letter is specifically between the player and the school, not the player and the coach, so even if a coach leaves after National Signing Day, the school can still keep that player.

The NLI does not provide anything to the process beyond ensuring the athlete will end up at the school he or she has committed to.

The scholarship agreement, which determines how many years a scholarship will be valid for and the monetary value of the award, is signed at a later date. It also does not guarantee admission to the school. It is simply a way of making sure athletes can no longer flip their commitments.

When can football players sign their letters of intent?

Currently, a football player cannot sign their letters of intent until the first Wednesday in February following their senior season.

This is part of why there is so much committing and decommitting in recruiting news. While most athletes commit to schools long before February, each can only give a school a verbal commitment, which is non-binding. Per NCAA rules, schools are not allowed to talk about athletes who have not yet signed letters of intent or scholarship agreements.

The football timetable for signing the NLI could be moved up. There are early signing periods for other sports, including basketball, and according to CBS Sports, football could have a three-day early signing period in December.

There are pros and cons to an early signing period, as SB Nation's Bud Elliott writes. It could provide both schools and recruits some security in the process, but it could also cause more recruits to be bound to schools after coaches leave. And if there is an early signing period, the rest of the NCAA calendar might have to be rearranged as well.

What happens if a freshman wants to change schools after signing?

According to the NCAA, of the 36,000 athletes who signed NLIs in 2010, only 700 asked for releases, and only 30 were not granted them.

After all, it's not great to have someone on your team who does not want to be there. But the NLI holds significant power. If a school doesn't give a player a release, that player has to sit out a year.

Some of the most recent examples have come in basketball. In 2013, UTEP coach Tim Floyd refused to release star Isaac Hamilton from his NLI, citing that the Miners created their schedule around having him. In 2014, Appalachian State let point guard Devonte Graham out of his NLI after Graham's stock had risen in recruiting. Coach Jim Fox initially resisted, but ultimately gave in.

In football, the most prominent recent example was when Notre Dame signee Eddie Vanderdoes was denied a release from Notre Dame by coach Brian Kelly. Vanderdoes left for UCLA anyway and won his appeal to be eligible for the Bruins immediately in 2013.

Do recruits have to sign letters of intent?

Technically, athletes don't need to sign NLIs to be eligible. In fact, the letter states that it is not mandatory.

The National Letter of Intent (NLI) is a voluntary program with regard to both institutions and prospective student-athletes. No prospective student-athlete or parent is required to sign the NLI for a prospective student-athlete to receive athletics aid and participate in intercollegiate athletics.

However, it is standard practice for all but a handful of players. Football coaches use NLIs to make sure they have filled out their entire rosters of 85 scholarship players. If a mid-level player refuses to sign, a coach could just go find another player who will sign the binding agreement.

Only the best of the top-level players could even conceivably choose not to sign, but it's just not something players do.

Could the system change?

Yes. The most likely change is the early signing period in December. The idea is that it will make the whole process a little bit more straightforward and will make the February signing day less of a circus.

Some have suggested the NCAA needs to allow players immediate release from their NLIs if coaches leave, though it has been a long-standing NCAA argument that athletes sign on for school, not sports. Therefore, they are committing to schools, not coaches.

Former Nebraska coach and current Youngstown State coach Bo Pelini had the radical idea of eliminating signing day altogether and allowing athletes to sign their NLIs whenever they want. That would help coaches, who wouldn't have to worry about their verbal commitments wavering. But it could hurt athletes who are pressured into signing and haven't had time to make informed decisions.