Financial aid agreements have advantages in college athletics, but can create a mess

As soon as Virginia Tech became the first school to offer a scholarship to Marshawn Williams in the winter of 2012, he couldn't help but have some loyalty toward the Hokies. It's just the way he's wired.

Other than a brief moment of indecision about his college future last February when he transferred from Hampton High to Phoebus High, he's had intentions to be a Hokie since June 2012. So when Williams realized he was going to finish his high school academic requirements early and could sign a financial aid agreement before enrolling in January at Tech, he was ready.

"I couldn't wait to get to Tech," said Williams, a running back who was one of five players to enroll in January at Tech, including four early high school graduates.

Unlike a letter of intent, which is binding for both school and player, financial aid agreements bind a school to providing the agreed-upon aid to players, but the players aren't required to attend the school. Wednesday will be the first day players in the recruiting class of 2014 can sign a letter of intent.

Since Williams knew he wanted to go to Tech, a rule instituted in October by the NCAA designed to give student-athletes more assurances about their desired college destination and increase communication in the enrollment process didn't do much for Williams – but that's partly because Tech showed Williams so much love early on, and partly because Williams didn't know the full extent of the rule.

In October, the NCAA announced it will give senior student-athletes in all sports who graduate high school early and plan to enroll mid-year in college the opportunity to sign financial aid agreements as early as Aug. 1. Players can sign financial aid agreements with multiple colleges.

Prior to the ruling, colleges weren't required to offer an agreement that would bind the college to financial aid for the early-graduating student-athlete until the student-athlete enrolled at the college. In college football terms, the ruling represented the first semblance of an early signing period.

Now, here's where the new ruling gets a little messy.

Along with the option for players to sign financial aid agreements as early as Aug. 1, the NCAA loosened recruiting restrictions on colleges that received financial aid agreement signatures from players, allowing colleges to openly talk with media about players who had signed a financial aid agreement with them and letting colleges communicate as often as they wanted with signed players.

For players that haven't signed a letter of intent or financial aid agreement, it constitutes an NCAA violation for college coaches to talk on-the-record about those players to media, or communicate with those players outside of permitted communication periods.

After highly-recruited early enrollee Andrew Brown of Oscar Smith High in Chesapeake signed a financial agreement in August with Virginia, U.Va. football coach Mike London was able to talk about Brown on-the-record with media.

Problems started to arise in other areas. At least three highly-recruited football players – wide receiver Josh Malone of Gallatin, Tenn., running back Dalvin Cook of Miami and safety Laurence Jones of Monroe, La. – signed two or more financial aid agreements with colleges.

Williams, who didn't know he could sign multiple agreements, was intrigued by the strategy employed by Malone, Cook and Jones.

"You've got to be at that school for four years, so you've got to make sure it's the right one," Williams said.

"I wouldn't have done it, because Tech offered me first. If it was a different situation, and Tech hadn't offered me before anybody else and a bunch of other schools had offered me all around the same time, of course, I would've (signed multiple financial aid agreements).

"It'd be like signing day. Once you make that choice (to sign multiple financial aid agreements), and they can't take it away from you and those schools are guaranteed, that's a pretty good deal."

The NCAA attempted to rectify the situation in mid-January by ruling players could still sign multiple financial aid agreements, but only the first school a player signs with will get the benefit of loosened recruiting restrictions, thus giving that school a significant recruiting edge.

Still, there's the issue of determining which school gets the signature of a player first.

"With these very high-profile prospective student-athletes, typically what we see is as soon as they sign with someone, it's all over the media, the student is talking about it, the school is talking or tweeting about it or putting it on their website or issuing a press release," said Jamie Israel, an associate director of the NCAA's academic and membership affairs program.

Israel said some college coaches have lobbied to make the financial aid agreements binding for both player and school, or to at least put measures in place to make college coaches more selective.

"Maybe the way to go is to say, 'Sign whoever you want, anyone can talk to anyone they've signed, but if the student doesn't actually end up enrolling at your institution, the school has a violation,'" Israel said. "That's another avenue that's been discussed."

There's danger in relying on coaches to inform media about financial aid agreements made with what is currently a relatively small pool of players, according to John Infante, who writes the Bylaw Blog for the athleticscholarships.net website.

"Even assuming that everyone is on the up-and-up with this, I think there are problems," said Infante, who was an NCAA compliance officer at Loyola-Marymount from 2008 to '11 and at Colorado State in '11 and '12. "If you start to put that in the hands of coaches, and let them get creative with it, you can see those problems start to multiply pretty quickly."

Infante mentioned some worst-scenarios, including coaches who could sign a player to a financial aid agreement and tell him to keep it quiet. Then, if the player signed another financial aid agreement with a school that was clearly not the player's first choice, the second school could end up getting violations for publicizing a player it thought it had signed first.

"I think you'll see coaches that are hesitant to sign kids to financial aid agreements unless they can be positive the kid isn't going to sign anywhere else," Infante said. "You may see those agreements saying things like, 'I attest or I certify that I have not signed with any other school, and if I have, this agreement is invalid.' That way, if they broke a bunch of recruiting rules, the school can go back to the NCAA and say, 'Look, the kid signed the thing. He said he hadn't signed anywhere else. What are we supposed to do with that?'"

Wood can be reached by phone at 757-247-4642.