Starting Wednesday, high school student-athletes across the country get a chance to take center stage.
They will gather with family, friends and peers to sign national letters of intent, signifying they have reached their goal of taking their athletic careers to the next level.
“They’ve put all this time into this, and that athletic letter of intent is kind of that signature moment for them,” Edmonds Community College athletics director Spencer Stark said.
Whether it’s a small event in front of coaches, parents and friends, or the much-hyped nationally televised announcements by top-level NCAA Division-I recruits, signing events have become commonplace in recent years.
“I think it’s very important to them. I think it’s much more important to them than maybe when I played,” said Stark, who played baseball at Olympic College from 2001-02 before moving on to an NAIA school. “… I think it’s becoming more and more and more important to that age group for many reasons. For one, everybody wants to know what they’re going to be doing the next year, and that kind of solidifies it. It puts the stamp on it.”
The early signing period for non-football NCAA Division-I and II athletes opens Wednesday and runs through Aug. 1 for all sports except Division I basketball. D-I basketball players have until Nov. 20 to sign, otherwise they have to wait until April 15.
But what exactly are student-athletes signing at these ceremonies? It depends on where they’re going and what sport they’re playing.
Here’s a breakdown:
NCAA Division I and II
An NCAA Division I scholarship is the ultimate goal for many student-athletes. A full ride at a D-I school can cover tuition, fees, supplies and housing.
At the Division-II level, scholarships are limited to tuition, fees, books and up to $250 in course supplies.
An NCAA letter of intent includes a written offer of athletic financial aid. Once the letter is received, the student-athlete has seven days to sign or the offer is null and void. Once the letter is signed, the athlete can no longer be recruited by other schools.
“Our coaches really love that moment,” said Jackie Mynarski, associate director of compliance at the University of Washington, “because you truly become a member of the Husky family then.”
A signed letter of intent for Division I and II schools is a one-year agreement that has binding implications. Once a student-athlete signs an NCAA letter of intent, he or she is legally bound to that institution.
In order to receive a release from a letter on intent, a student-athlete must go through an appeals process and have their release granted by the university they’ve signed with.
If a student-athlete transfers from one NCAA school to another, they must complete one academic year at their new school before competing, unless a one-year transfer exception or waiver is granted.
If an athlete enrolls in a junior college instead of the NCAA school they signed a letter of intent with, they must graduate from that two-year school before signing another letter of intent.
Student-athletes do not have to sign a letter of intent, but it’s rare for students to not sign national letters of intent at larger programs.
Universities also offer letters of commitment for walk-on athletes, which acknowledges the recruitment of an athlete to a school and that they are welcome to try out for the team.
“The signing ceremonies, those are just nice things that as part of a high school experience are important to folks,” Mynarski said. “And sometimes those individuals will be put on aid later in their career, so … if you’re going to get aid sophomore year, it just seems silly that you couldn’t sign something as part of a ceremony now.”
Plenty of local athletes further their education and athletic careers at schools in the Northwest Athletic Conference, the governing organization for community college athletics in Washington and Oregon.
NWAC schools are allowed to offer up to 65% of tuition each quarter for an athletic scholarship. Stark said that’s essentially the NWAC’s version of a “full-ride.” It doesn’t include money for books or housing.
“It’s not every player on your team (that gets full scholarships),” he said, “but there’s definitely players on every team that have those.”
Stark said it’s tough to say what an average scholarship offer is for an NWAC athlete. A lot of that has to do with the sport. He added that sports with higher profiles, such as baseball and men’s basketball, tend to see more of the 65% scholarships.
The smallest offer an NWAC school can make is $100 employment, which Stark said is like a work-study job.
“I see a couple of those. I don’t like those a lot as an athletic director because, I mean, what are we promising here? Something that we probably can’t, and is that really legit?” he said. “The flip side of that is we can’t have a student sign a letter of intent with no money on it. And a lot of times if a player wants to come here and they’re going to be part of the program, maybe they’re a walk-on or maybe they’re gonna be part of the program but they’re not getting in money, they still want to sign something.
“So putting that minimum on there kind of gives them that opportunity to officially commit and be a part of the program and sign a letter of intent.”
NWAC letters of intent are binding only among NWAC schools. A student-athlete who signs with an NWAC school is free to change his or her mind and play at a non-NWAC school with no penalty.
“That’s good and fine,” Stark said of athletes who decide to move on to larger programs after signing. “That’s where we’re trying to move them on to anyways.”
If a student wants to transfer to another NWAC school, they must be granted a waiver through a petition process. If the waiver isn’t granted and the student-athlete transfers, he or she can’t participate in athletics for one season.
“If you sign (with an NWAC school), the most important thing is you’re signing to an institution” Stark said. “It’s not a program or a coach. You’re signing to that school. So you gotta make sure you like everything about the college, not just the coach and the program, because you’re stuck (there).”
Once a student-athlete has signed with an NWAC school, other schools in the conference can no longer recruit them. Student-athletes who sign with NJACC schools can transfer to any school outside of the NJCAA — which includes the NWAC — without a penalty.
NJCAA schools can offer scholarships that cover tuition, fees, books, room and board, and up to $250 in course-required supplies.
The NAIA can offer scholarships like Division-I and NJCAA schools, although they are not as common.
NAIA rules for scholarship signing and transferring are much more relaxed than the NCAA.
NAIA school are free to have their own process of collecting commitments from incoming athletes, whether it’s a letter of intent, financial aid agreement or another avenue.
Perspective NAIA athletes don’t have to wait until their senior year to sign. They can commit and sign at any time, but aren’t necessarily in a binding agreement of any sort. Athletes are free to go to another NAIA school and play right away if they’d like, although conferences are allowed to establish rules that keep students from transferring within the conference without penalty.
Perspective NAIA athletes who have signed a letter of intent are still allowed to be recruited by other NAIA schools.
NCAA Division-III schools don’t offer athletic scholarships, though, many perspective Division-III athletes receive other means of financial aid, including merit-based scholarships and grants.
But that doesn’t mean Division-III athletes don’t have a place to write their names during signing-day ceremonies.
Division-III schools can provide a non-binding “Celebratory Signing Form” for student-athletes once they have been admitted to the school. Schools aren’t allowed to publicize these commitments until the student-athlete has submitted a financial deposit.