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Inequities in NCAA National Letters of Intent and the UW Madison Transfer Battle

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By Attorney Christopher L. Strohbehn


Transfers are a common occurrence for any collegiate athletic department. For example, so far there have been 390NCAA division I basketball transfers seeking new schools for the coming year. The recent battle between Wisconsin Basketball Coach Bo Ryan and former freshman redshirt forward Jarrod Uthoff has once again raised the question of whether the NCAA and its member institutions deserve the certain degree of power they hold over their student-athletes. This past two weeks has been a difficult time for Bo Ryan as he has taken a good deal of negative publicity for the way he handled the Uthoff situation. Is there an inequity in the relationship between the student-athletes and the member institutions due to the National Letter of Intent? If so, where is it exactly (aside from the fact they "student-athletes" do not receive any salary or pay from lucrative television or endorsement deals). How can a student-athlete navigate him or herself out of difficult situations with an administration or athletic department? What can students wishing to transfer under the current rules learn from the Ryan and Uthoff situation for?

On one hand, the argument is that a recruit and his or her family (a parent or guardian is required to sign the letter as well) signed a National Letter of Intent  which includes a NLI Penalty if he or she decides to leave the institution early to attend another academic institution. If the student and the family are signing on to those requirements, they are agreeing in advance to the potential NLI Penalty. The penalty states that student-athlete would have to serve one year in residence at the new institution and lose a year of competition in intercollegiate athletics in all sports. In the Uthoff example, the University of Wisconsin has the benefit of commitment on the part of Uthoff for four years of athletic eligibility at the University.

On the other hand, NCAA Bylaws only require that a member institution honor a scholarship for a student-athlete for one year with an option to be renewed each year for that student-athlete. NCAA Bylaws. There are many reasons an athletic institution does not renew a student-athletes scholarship after one year. Academics and disciplinary reasons are the two main reasons. Athletic performance, while not as publicized or recognized, is another. Member institutions can grant full releases  to the student-athlete so that they can transfer to another institution without the basic NLI penalty. Or, the coach can refuse to release the student-athlete (or severely limit the options, as in the Uthoff case) which then would require an appeal to the NLI Policy and Review Committee at the NLI Office within 30 days of the No Release decision. Whether the current process is fair or not is unfortunately not the key component, unless the inequity makes it to the court of public opinion as is currently happening in the Uthoff situation. For most student athletes, the rules are the rules.

So what should a student-athlete or a family member do before making this decision to sign a National Letter of Intent or to transfer after signing a letter? First you must understand your options and the potential penalties that go with it. These documents are treated as binding commitments to member institutions if you are a recruit. If you have questions or do not understand something within the National Letter of Intent, seek assistance from counsel. If you believe a transfer is warranted, develop a plan to get the blessing of the coach and athletic department in hopes that they will grant a full release and make the process easier for everyone. If that does not work, consider getting assistance from counsel in appealing the process to the NLI Policy and Review Committee. You need to be able to explain your situation and put your best foot forward when seeking a release, because the deck is currently stacked against the NCAA student athlete who wants to transfer to another school.

For more information on NLI policies and to discuss your options, contact a qualified attorney, such as the team at of lawyers at Gimbel, Reilly, Guerin & Brown LLP.

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