SI's Seth Davis writes a compelling case against college prospects signing the National Letter of Intent (NLI), wondering whether the contract, which binds player to school, is legally "unconscionable." The problem with the NLI is that it favors college programs far more than players. Provision No. 19 of the NLI states that players agree they are signing with the school, not the program, even if the actual recruiting often reflects the opposite.
Seth's conclusion: "[U]ntil improvements are made, and until the athletes are given a say in the letter's contents, my advice to recruits is, Don't sign. You can get yourself a better deal."
Refusing to sign would probably work for the very top recruits (guys like Kevin Durant, Greg Oden, OJ Mayo, Kevin Love, etc.). But I would not offer this advice in broad strokes. If recruiting is a game of musical chairs, signing the letter assures a recruit that he/she will have a home for at least one year . Of course, this is contingent on the recruit's admittance into school and avoiding certain bad behavior, both large loopholes in the school's favor.
From the coaches' perspective the NLI also allows them to view players as interchangeable commodities, playing recruits off against each other. A coach might say to three point guards he's recruiting, "I've offered scholarships to three guys. First one to sign gets the scholarship." Fear sure is an effective closing technique for college coaches often judged on their ability to recruit. In reality, most high school recruits don't have the leverage to dictate anything to college coaches. They're just thrilled to get a flimsy 1-year scholarship commitment. Now if every top blue chip recruit collectively refused to sign the agreement...then things could get interesting.
11/16 Update: Received this from a friend who works in college athletics: "Practically speaking, I have to believe most coaches will NOT offer only a grant-in-aid (GIA) without insisting on a signed NLI because it could be so destructive to them. They'll say 'if you want me to commit an athletic scholarship to you then we need you to sign the NLI so we know it works both ways.' So you might want to suggest that they ask FIRST whether a coach would mind issuing a GIA contract alone, but be ready to back off on that request."