National Signing Day is an important time in the college recruiting calendar. It’s the first day student-athletes can officially sign a National Letter of Intent (NLI) to commit to an NCAA DI or DII institution. While more than 600 NCAA DI and DII colleges participate, the NLI program is voluntary for both athletes and colleges. 

What exactly is National Signing Day?

National Signing Day is the culmination of the recruiting journey for athletes, celebrating their commitments to attend and compete at NCAA programs.

Highlighting an important decision in their lives, athletes typically announce their decisions and sign their NLI at their schools or their homes in front of family, friends, teammates, coaches, and classmates. In some cases, this moment is featured on local or national television.

Depending on the sport, National Signing Day is celebrated by high school seniors and represents a binding agreement between athletes and the colleges they choose. Football and basketball players have the option of making their decisions during early signing periods. Note that athletes are not required to sign an NLI, on a specific day, when they commit.

National Letter of Intent (NLI)

The National Letter of Intent (NLI) is a legal contract between prospective athletes and NCAA institutions. The contract states that the athletes agree to attend an NCAA institution for one academic year and that the NCAA institutions agree to provide athletic financial aid for one academic year. When an NLl is signed, athletes’ recruiting process officially end and they cannot be recruited by any other schools.

What the contract includes

  • Initial Enrollment to a 4-year School
    • States that athletes are enrolling in a 4-year university for the first time. It also applies to 4-2-4 transfers or mid-year transfers in football.
  • Financial Aid Requirement
    • Lists the terms and conditions of financial aid that will be granted to athletes.
  • Provisions of the Letter
    • This section states that athletes will meet the terms of the contract by attending the school listed on the NLI for one year. For junior college athletes, they will need to attend the 4-year university for one year or have graduated from a 2- year school. 
  • Signing Period Penalties
    • If athletes don’t attend the NCAA school listed in their contracts and enroll in other schools, they will be forced to sit out for one full academic year. Additionally, they will lose one year of eligibility.
  • Release Request & Appeal Process
    • If athletes want to request a release from the NLI, they must file an appeal with the NLI review committee to break the contract. 
  • Declaring NLI Null & Void
    • All situations and circumstances that will void an NLI are listed. They include academic and eligibility requirements, one-year absence, military or church service, discontinuing of a sport, and recruiting violations.
  • Recruiting Ban after Signing
    • The signing of this document ends the recruitment journey for the athletes. All other schools cannot continue to recruit the athletes named in the NLI.
  • 7-Day Signing Deadline
    • The athletes or their parents/guardians have 7 days after the date of issuance to sign the NLI or it will be considered invalid. 
  • Statute of Limitations
    • Once signed, the NLI is in full effect for 4 years. After 4 years, the NLI is no longer binding.
  • Coaching Changes
    • This states that the athletes understand that the NLI signed applies to the institution and not coach or sport. If there are any coaching changes, the athletes must still attend the schools for one year. 
  • Coaching Contact Prohibited at Time of Signing
    • When athletes are signing their NLIs, no representatives from the schools can be present. The NLIs must be delivered and sent via mail, email, or fax.

What the contract doesn’t include

Signing an NLI does not mean that an athlete has been admitted into that particular NCAA institution. All athletes must still meet the admission requirements of the school. Making the team and playing time are also not guaranteed. The financial terms and conditions are separate from the NLI. Scholarship renewal after one year is also not promised.

Signing periods

Signing periods are specific dates agreed upon by the NLI program and the NCAA during which athletes can sign their National Letters of Intent. If athletes wish to sign an NLI, they must do so within this time period or possibly face a penalty.

Early signing

Recently, new rules have been added to include early signing periods which mostly impact football and basketball players. Since the inception of the early signing period, many football and basketball players choose to sign their NLI during this time.

Benefits of signing early

Signing early can be beneficial for athletes and the schools they choose. For athletes, signing early guarantees them at least one year of scholarship money, it provides them security against unexpected injury, and it allows them to focus on the rest of their high school careers. For colleges, it allows them to lock in commitments and focus the rest of their time on recruiting other athletes.

Risks of signing early

There can also be drawbacks to signing early. The recruiting process can be an emotional journey and some athletes feel pressure from their peers, families, or schools to sign and get the decision out of the way. Submitting an NLI officially ends the recruiting process for athletes and limits them from exploring other opportunities.

Another thing to consider is that coaching changes happen frequently and unexpectedly. There is a lot of time between when student-athletes sign and the day they set foot on campus. If there are any coaching changes, student-athletes are still required to attend the school listed on their NLI.

That said, before locking into binding agreements, it’s important for athletes to weigh their opportunities. Prior to making their final decisions, athletes should always seek advice from their families, coaches, guidance counselors, etc.

Why athletes might hold off on signing

Athletes can benefit from taking more time before officially signing. Waiting to make a commitment gives athletes more time to consider all factors that might impact their decision. Since their recruitment is still open, athletes can continue to take on more official visits. This may lead to a better fit or options that make more sense financially. It also allows the athlete to see how things play out with other recruits in his or her class. Competition and playing time can significantly impact the athlete’s choice.  

Keep in mind that college programs also look for early commitments so they can finalize their rosters. Waiting to sign can be risky since athletes can potentially lose their recruiting spot or get their offer pulled by a college.

NLI signing windows

Signing windows are specific time periods when athletes are eligible to sign a letter of intent. Each window begins with an initial signing date and ends with a final deadline. Most sports follow a common signing period with the exception of football and basketball. These two sports have updated rules that include early signing periods for athletes.

Athletes have 7 days from the issue date listed on the document to sign their NLI before it becomes invalid. The signing windows are listed below and you can also visit the NLI website here for more info.

  • All DI and DII Sports *Except basketball or football* (Regular Period)
    • Initial Date – Nov 13th, 2019 – Final Date Aug 1st, 2020
  • DI Basketball  (Early Period)
    • Initial Date – November 13th, 2019 – Final Date Nov 20th, 2019
  • DI Basketball  (Regular Period)
    • Initial Date – April 15th, 2020 – Final Date May 20th, 2020 
  • DI Football (Early Period)
    • Initial Date – Dec 18th, 2019 – Final Date Dec 20th, 2019
  • DI and DII Football (Mid-Year Junior College Transfer) 
    • Initial Date – Dec 18th, 2019 – Final Date Jan 15th, 2020
  • DI and DII Football (Regular Period) 
    • DI Initial Date – Feb 5th, 2020 – Final Date April 1st, 2020
    • DII Initial Date – Feb 5th, 2020 – Final Date August 1st, 2020