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Ethical Analysis - Breaking National Letters of Intent

This is a subject upon which I have commented on before in various other fora.  Today, I toss this out for your discussion and analysis.

In the news today, we find DeAndre Jordan, a consensus top 10 2007 recruit, again waffling a bit on his commitment to Texas A&M University (TAMU).  Jordan has not just verbally committed, but he has signed a National Letter of Intent (NLOI) which binds him to the school and binds the school to him vis-a-vis an athletic scholarship.

Yesterday, Billy Gillispie, the Kentucky née TAMU coach who recruited Jordan, has said that he will be no means try to convince Jordan to come to Kentucky, even though it would fill a huge hole in our front line.

The general question I propose for analysis is this - is asking for release from a NLOI ethical behavior?

In beginning this analysis, let's look at the facts:  Gillispie recruited Jordan, and undoubtedly intimated to him at some and possibly many points that he planned to be his coach.  This is common in recruiting, and many recruits will tell you that they pick a coach, not a school.

After agreeing to come to TAMU, Jordan signed a NLOI, a legally binding contract between the school and him, requiring full consent and knowledge of his legal guardians, even if he is above the age of majority.

As we all know, the University of Kentucky successfully recruited Billy Gillispie to coach here and leave TAMU, thereby opening speculation that some of his recruits might follow.  To his credit, Gillispie has repeatedly stated that he will not try to convince his TAMU recruits to come to UK.  What he has not addressed is what he would do if they do break the NLOI and reopen their recruitment.  Keep in mind that Jordan has not yet enrolled in TAMU, nor officially set foot on campus as a student athlete.

In the past, most and perhaps all schools in this situation have released NLOI-bound athletes at their request, sometimes with conditions, but usually unconditionally.  There may be a case where the school denied a player's request, but I'm not aware of it.

Now, to the NLOI.  The NLOI, as I have said, is a legal contract binding the school and the athlete together.  If the athlete wants to go elsewhere and the school is unwilling to release him, the consequences are loss of 1 year of college eligibility at NLOI schools (all Division 1 schools).  By the same token, if Jordan blows out his knee and cannot play next season, even before he sets foot on campus, the school is bound to provide a full ride scholarship for at least one year anyway.

Without going through a long and detailed analysis, I will jump right to the conclusion, and then defend it.  It is unethical for an athlete who has signed an NLOI to ask the school to release him for the purpose of following a coach.  My reasoning is as follows:

Every recruit and his legal guardian are required to be made aware that the NLOI contract is between him and the school.  In other words, the NLOI program contemplates the possibility that the present coach might leave, and excludes that as a reason for lawful termination.  To put it another way, the contract expressly rejects a coaching change as grounds for termination, a fact that all parties are required to be made aware of before they sign.

When recruits sign an NLOI, they are accepting a guaranteed, one year athletic scholarship from an accredited university, worth a significant amount of money.  That scholarship is guaranteed regardless of the recruit's ability to perform athletically in any capacity whatever, barring moral turpitude, criminal activity or failure to meet scholarship requirements.  In return, the school exclusively obtains the recruit's services for one academic year.

When a recruit asks out of an NLOI to follow a coach, he is effectively asking the school to void an agreement that is a) clearly in the interests of both parties b) clearly to the benefit of both parties, and c) clearly not a valid reason to request the agreement be nullified.

Now, many would argue, "These are kids, and they should do what is right for them.  Besides, it happens all the time".  That argument is full of so many ethical fallacies, it's hard to know where to begin.  The first is the Golden Rationalization - others do it so it must be OK. The second is the Kings Pass - the interests of the "kid" are more important than the interests of the other parties.  The third is the Saint's License - "It's for a good cause", i.e. the greater benefit of the recruit.  Many UK fans will also be guilty of cognitive dissonance in this case - their perceived need of a player in Jordan's position colors their judgment of his ethics.

The fact of the "bigger, better deal" arising after a contract has been done is what is known as a "non-ethical consideration", and these are often powerful motivators to rationalize away ethical conduct.  Billy Gillispie's change of employer is similarly a non-ethical consideration for Jordan.

Finally, what of Gillispie himself?  Has his behavior in this matter passed ethical muster?  Well, so far I would say yes.  He has done nothing that I know of to encourage Jordan to break his NLOI.  But what he hasn't done that he could do is tell Jordan he would not offer him a scholarship if he requests release from his NLOI.  That would help smooth Jordan's way to an ethical decision.

However, it is not Gillispie's ethical responsibility to make Jordan's decision easy - In fact, he has a duty to UK that would clearly conflict with such a declaration.  It is, however, Jordan's responsibility to understand and do the right thing.  When you sign on the dotted line, especially under the circumstances we have here, ambiguity has been effectively removed by the document and the requirements of the process.

Now, does this mean we should censure Jordan if he breaks his agreement and comes here?  Of course not.  Forgiveness is one of the "Seven Enabling Virtues": Courage, fortitude, valor, sacrifice, honor, humility and forgiveness.  Mistakes are a part of life, we all make them and hopefully learn from them.  TAMU will forgive him, and the Big Blue Nation certainly will (if it ever bothers to consider his conduct at all).

For an explanation of terms and the process used for my analysis, I recommend this site.  I recommend it to you as a daily read.  The author is brilliant and committed (and willingly answers questions), and it will enhance your own sense of ethics - at least, it has mine.