Sunday, June 16, 2024

Georgia QB Jaden Rashada sues Florida coach Billy Napier, among others, over botched $13.85M NIL deal

Georgia quarterback Jaden Rashada has sued Florida coach Billy Napier, top Gators booster Hugh Hathcock and former football staffer Marcus Castro-Walker over a failed name, image and likeness deal that would have paid the quarterback $13.85 million, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court on Tuesday. 

The bombshell lawsuit, which features the unprecedented action of an active SEC quarterback suing a sitting rival head coach, is the most notable NIL-related lawsuit to date. In many ways, Rashada became the face of the chaotic nature of early NIL that was full of big promises with little oversight on the heels of his Florida deal falling apart. 

The complaint, filed in the Pensacola Division of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, details a number of counts alleging Napier, Hathcock and others fraudulently induced Rashada, then a highly regarded high school quarterback prospect, to attend Florida with no intention of following through on their financial promises. Specifically, the lawsuit claims fraudulent misrepresentation and inducement, aiding and abetting fraud, civil conspiracy to commit fraud, negligent misrepresentation, tortious interference with a business relationship or contract and aiding and abetting tortious interference. 

“Hathcock (on behalf of himself and Velocity Automotive), Castro-Walker and Coach Napier orchestrated and executed a fraud upon Jaden and were substantially and knowingly assisted by one another in carrying out the fraud,” the lawsuit says. “Each of their individual schemes would not have succeeded without assistance from one another.”

Attempts to reach Florida for comment were not immediately returned. 

Rashada enlisted well-known Houston-area attorney Rusty Hardin, who has previously represented a bevy of notable athletes including Roger Clemens and Adrian Peterson, to try the case. Hardin has been involved in potential litigation against Napier and others since January 2023 when Rashada’s agents, Jackson Zager and Tommy Thomsen, first reached out inquiring about legal options after Florida boosters allegedly reneged on the multi-million dollar NIL deal. 

At the crux of the argument are the actions of Napier, Hathcock and his company Velocity Automotive, as well as Castro-Walker convincing Rashada to eschew a previously agreed upon $9.5 million NIL deal to attend Miami in favor of Florida. Rashada originally committed to play football at Miami in June 2022 under the terms of that deal, but the lawsuit alleges that Florida employees and boosters never backed off in their pursuit of the talented Pittsburg, Calif., product. It includes allegations that Hathcock told Rashada, “whatever Jaden needed to come to UF, Hathcock would make happen.” It also alleges his father, Harlen, was told he could get a job in the security industry during a recruiting visit. Direct contact with a recruit during an on-campus visit by a booster is against NCAA rules. 

To sway Rashada’s decision, Hathcock and Castro-Walker offered the $13.85 million deal with $5.35 million, including a $500,000 signing bonus, to come through Hathcock’s Velocity Automotive company and the rest through Gator Guard, the NIL collective that he started. Hathcock had previously committed to donating $12.6 million to the Gator Boosters, and early media reports stated the Gator Guard raised $5 million in its first 24 hours. 

Before the deal was finalized, however, Hathcock informed Rashada’s representatives that he no longer wanted to route the NIL payments through his company because he planned to sell it, according to the lawsuit. Instead, he and Castro-Walker proposed money coming directly from Hathcock and the rest coming through the Gator Collective, Florida’s other NIL collective. That involved Eddie Rojas, CEO of Gator Collective, who allegedly texted Zager about the impending deal: “Tell Jaden we look forward to setting him up for life. Need to set up his brokerage accounts asap. Dude is rich and we just got started.” The deal was officially signed on Nov. 10, 2022, with the first $500,000 payment due to Rashada on Dec. 5. 

The lawsuit claims, though, that Hathcock never had any intention of making that payment and everyone involved, including Napier, knew that. 

“The collective never had the money and yet they were making all of these promises to the kid,” Hardin told CBS Sports. “You dangle life-changing, generation-changing money in front of a 19-year-old kid, who grew up without it, you can’t expect that young person to not be affected by it. The bargaining power is totally unequal here.”


Florida coach Billy Napier is among the subjects of a lawsuit filed on behalf of Jaden Rashada on May 21. Getty Images

Instead, a day after the $500,000 payment was due, the Gator Collective sent Rashada a termination letter of the $13.85 million deal. Still, the lawsuit claims Napier and Castro-Walker went to great lengths to convince Rashada that they would make good on the promised money even without the contract. Castro-Walker told Rashada’s agents that the Gator Guard would now take on paying the deal and that “Hathcock, through the Gator Guard, would personally guarantee the $13.85 million obligation himself.” The only payment allegedly made was for $150,000 to pay back John Ruiz, a prominent Miami booster, so that Rashada “could avoid possible litigation” with Ruiz who was seeking repayment from the initial $9.5 million NIL deal. 

It all came to a head on Dec. 21, the first day of the early signing period, where Napier allegedly personally vouched to Rashada that Florida alumni “were good on their promise that Jaden would receive $1 million if he signed with UF on National Signing Day” and that Hathcock would make the payment. Harlen Rashada later texted Zager, “Coach Napier said [Hathcock’s] on a plane and that he will wire 1 Mil. He wants the paper work and I’m sending it if you are good.” It claims that Castro-Walker threatened Rashada that if he did not sign, Napier might pull his scholarship offer. 

Hardin told CBS Sports that Napier never should have been making those promises, which, at the time, were also against NCAA rules. “That’s not a role he should have been involved in, he shouldn’t have made those promises and he should have stayed out of that whole area,” Hardin said. “He didn’t.” 

Less than a month later after early signing day, Rashada asked for his release from his letter of intent with Florida. He ultimately decided on Arizona State, his father’s alma mater, where he wasn’t promised any NIL compensation. He started three games for Arizona State in his first season in 2023 and won his debut as a true freshman. Rashada transferred to Georgia this spring. 

Rashada informed Georgia coach Kirby Smart of his intention to file the lawsuit, according to sources, and Smart gave his blessing. 

Castro-Walker no longer works for Florida, though the school hasn’t detailed a cause for that. The NCAA was actively investigating the case, which included interviews with relevant parties and Florida cooperating with the investigation, according to sources. Following the ruling in the landmark Tennessee and Virginia versus NCAA lawsuit, which barred the NCAA from enforcing NIL-related compensation rules, the organization’s enforcement arm backed off. 

The lawsuit claims that Rashada suffered the loss of his $9.5 million NIL deal with Miami and other collective-sponsored NIL compensation. It also seeks punitive damages. 

In total, the lawsuit argues that Rashada is the victim of a new world where boosters have never had more influence. 

“Jaden’s miserable experience reveals, in stark and dramatic detail, what can happen to young student-athletes when wealthy, win-at-all-cost alumni insert themselves into college football’s recruiting process,” the lawsuit says.

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