What You Need to Know About Verbal Commitments

hand shake representing verbal commitmentsIf you’re looking to play college athletics, you can’t help but hear about verbal commitments. And if you’re pursuing an athletic scholarship, chances are that you’ll be making a verbal commitment yourself. Plenty of powerhouse schools expect athletes to verbally commit long before the National signing day. So the sooner you can make a verbal commitment, the better–right? The question is better for whom?

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Verbal Commitment is Defined by the National Letter of Intent

Let’s start with defining a verbal commitment. You’ll find a definition of verbal commitment under the frequently asked questions about the National Letter of Intent (NLI). The definition is “stating publicly one’s intentions to attend a certain institution, is a non-binding, oral agreement between you and the institution. The only binding nature of the commitment is your word and the institution’s promise.”

Why is this even an issue for the NLI? Because the definition is part of an answer to the question “Can I make a verbal commitment to a school and sign an NLI with a different school?” And the short answer is “Yes.” The NLI states that

The NLI program does not recognize verbal commitments. It is not uncommon for a student to verbally commit to one institution and subsequently sign an NLI with another institution. And, on some occasions, a school may accept your verbal commitment and later offer the NLI to another prospective student-athlete.

Verbal commitments are at best, a gentleman’s agreement. A player promises to attend a college while the coach promises to provide some sort of scholarship (usually, and if there is no scholarship, there’s no official NLI).

With recent changes by the NCAA, in the majority of sports coaches will not be able to have a “recruiting interaction” until June 15th of an athlete’s sophomore year. In Softball, the date is September 1st of the junior year, while the date for D1 Football is April 15th of the junior year. This means that athletes need to look up the rules for their sport.

The interesting part is that with the exception of men’s ice hockey, there are still no rules against early commitments. Whether or not the new rules delay verbal commitments, they will still be allowed.

Why Make a Verbal Commitment

With recruiting starting earlier and earlier, it can be a relief to an athlete and her family to settle the question of where to go to college and how to pay for it even if she is only a sophomore or maybe with the rule changes, a junior. She can also stop worrying about what happens if she gets injured before she’s able to sign an NLI. The coach gets to fill a slot and move on to the next position, everyone is happy.

And for all the talk about somehow banning the practice, it’s obviously becoming institutionalized. Just take a look at the UCLA Recruiting website which until recently stated

We prefer athletes in their freshmen or sophomore years of high school or no later than in their junior season of high school to apply via the biography form. Unless you are a late rising junior it is probably too late to apply for an athletic scholarship in your senior year in virtually all of our 25 sports.

If it’s too late by the time you’re a junior, the scholarships could only have been promised through verbal commitments. Now this statement, which is no longer available on the UCLA website, doesn’t really look good does it no matter how honest it may have been.

Recent changes to NCAA recruiting rules changes the times when coaches can talk to players. For many sports, this includes player initiated contact as well. The idea is that if players and coaches can’t talk to each other before a specific date, there can’t be any verbal commitment. Yet, just a quick look at some of the websites that track commitments by sport indicates that they are still happening.

There’s another reason to visit these sites. If they allow you to sort by school, you’ll get an idea of how many players have committed to a school. The numbers may surprise you. However, it will give you some idea of the possibility of a coach rescinding an offer. Everyone hears about it when a player decommits but it rarely makes the news when the reverse happens.

There are Reasons why People Write Things Down

However, none of this is enforceable. Oh, the players will be scared by statements that college sports is a small world and if he decommits, word will get around and no one will risk taking him. How true this is depends on your sport. But I can’t help think that if someone is willing to recruit a player as a sophomore, the player is good enough that other colleges will still be interested.

According to a Sports Illustrated examination of football recruits, “Of the 500 players ranked in the Rivals100 for the classes of 2007 through 2011, 73 (14.6 percent) decommitted at some point during their recruitment. Of those, 62 (12.4 percent) ultimately signed with a school other than the one to which they originally committed.”

A similar analysis in basketball found that “it’s likely that at least one in six players will decommit.” Rivals reports that “the current recruiting class was represented by 34 players who had given early pledges; of those prospects, 13 have changed their college choices or opened the process to more programs.”

Are these players who decommit morally suspect because they failed to keep their word? No more so than the coaches who in trying to get one step ahead of their competition, decided not to wait for the NLI periods and created the “verbal commitment” to begin with.

What Can Players Do?

So what’s a player to do? First, understand what drives the process–the chance for an athletic scholarship. This means that if you don’t need an athletic scholarship to attend college, you have the ability to say, “not yet, I still want to look around.”

Of course, part of the problem is that too many students and their families only react to the recruiting process. So if something positive happens, they jump at the opportunity because they have no idea if something else good might happen. However, if these families took a proactive approach to finding colleges with programs that best match the player’s abilities and needs, they would be in a much better position to judge the value of a verbal commitment and if it’s something they can afford to pass on.

Now I realize that coaches will warn players that they don’t take walk-ons and that they won’t have a position waiting for them and so on. But these are often the same coaches that have no problem asking a prospect to grayshirt at the last minute or even simply changing their mind after making promises.

Coaches Change Jobs-a Lot!

And keep in mind there’s also the fact that the coach you made the verbal commitment to may not even be around when you finally show up on campus. When players make commitments as eighth graders, is there really any way for them to know what the odds are of the coach being offered a better position in the following 4 years? Abigail Knight found out the hard way after committing to Virginia Tech as a rising sophomore. The summer before her senior year, the newly hired coach decided that she didn’t have enough space on the roster for her.

Even if the new coach honors the verbal commitment, he may bring a totally different approach to running the team that could make it difficult for the athlete to get any playing time. The player may be better off decommitting and finding a place that really wants him.

Ideally, a player who makes a verbal commitment has already done enough research to know that any other offers that should come up in the future will be the result of unforeseen circumstances. This should give the player the confidence to make a verbal commitment if necessary for the coach and ultimately, the resolve to break it if it’s in his best interest.


What You Need to Know About Verbal Commitments

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