Wednesday, June 19, 2024

NCAA forced to sit on sidelines as Jaden Rashada lawsuit takes aim at rival SEC coach over failed NIL dealings

The bombshell lawsuit filed in federal court Tuesday by Georgia quarterback Jaden Rashada has the potential to cause significant ramifications within college sports, but don’t expect any NCAA involvement at this juncture.

Even just a year ago, let alone five years ago, one of the biggest components of Rashada’s lawsuit against Florida coach Billy Napier would have been potential NCAA penalties for the recruiting violations alleged within the lawsuit. Napier allegedly promising Rashada, then a highly regarded high school QB recruit in the 2023 class, that he’d receive a $1 million payment as part of an overall $13.85 million deal if he signed his letter of intent would have led to significant NCAA penalties if corroborated. The lawsuit also alleges that boosters agreed to a $500,000 signing bonus for Rashada, a clear inducement that violates NCAA rules. 

“Having text messages that are openly discussing the athlete getting paid in return for a commitment — that would have been a huge front-page news scandal,” said Mit Winter, a college sports attorney and NIL expert with law firm Kennyhertz Perry. “It would have presumably led to big NCAA sanctions; I’m sure Napier would be fired; Florida would have all kinds of sanctions and boosters would be disassociated.”

And yet it won’t. At least not for the foreseeable future. 

The NCAA was actively investigating the case, which included interviewing Rashada and former Gators staffer Marcus Castro-Walker, sources told CBS Sports. Castro-Walker, who Florida dismissed in February, is one of three individuals listed as defendants in the lawsuit alongside Napier and top booster Hugh Hathcock. The NCAA informed Florida in June 2023 that it had opened up an investigation into its football program. 

Considerable criticism had been levied on the NCAA’s enforcement group with many believing it had not slowed down what coaches and administrators viewed as blatant NIL-related violations. Rashada’s $13.85 million deal imploding, which generated national headlines after The Athletic first detailed the situation, was something critics pointed to that demanded action. Rashada ultimately asked out of his letter of intent in January 2023 after Florida boosters allegedly did not follow through on the agreed-upon payments and instead signed with Arizona State. He recently transferred to Georgia, where he is expected to serve as backup to Carson Beck this season.

However, as the NCAA’s enforcement team worked to investigate and build a case, one that multiple insiders expected to be the most significant of the NIL era, the states of Tennessee and Virginia sued the NCAA to halt enforcement of its NIL-related rules. That lawsuit was filed when it became public that the NCAA was investigating Spyre Sports, a Tennessee NIL collective, and the recruitment of top quarterback prospect Nico Iamaleava. The lawsuit proved successful in late February when U.S. District Judge Clifton Corker issued a preliminary injunction that essentially stopped the NCAA from enforcing rules that prohibited athletes from negotiating NIL deals with collectives and boosters. 

With that injunction, the enforcement team stopped actively pursuing NIL cases, including the one involving Rashada and Florida. In fact, the NCAA’s enforcement team quickly canceled previously scheduled interviews with individuals related to the Rashada case after Corker’s injunction.

The baseline of penalties Florida likely would have faced before the injunction is what Florida State received in January following a negotiated resolution with the NCAA. Florida State got two years of probation, offensive coordinator Alex Atkins received a three-game suspension, a loss of scholarships, a reduction of 1% on the football program’s budget and dissociation with NIL collective Rising Spear. Atkins, who wasn’t identified by name in the report, drove a recruit to meet with a booster who offered the player $15,000 a month to play for the Seminoles, according to the NCAA’s findings.

In the Florida case, Hathcock allegedly offered to do whatever it took to get Rashada, even mentioning he could get Jaden’s father, Harlen, a job in the security industry while the quarterback recruit was visiting Florida’s campus. 

“At a base level, it’s the exact same thing,” Winter said.

Florida State is now trying to get out of those agreed-upon penalties. The school sent a letter to Kay Norton, chairperson of the Division I Committee on Infractions, and asked the committee to reduce and/or rescind the penalties in light of the injunction. 

“The university is now disadvantaged by its cooperations and affirmative steps to expedite resolution of the case,” the letter read. “Similar or more egregious violations involving prospective student-athletes and other institutions’ collectives/boosters occurred during the same time period as the violations in the FSU case and some of those violations were being actively investigated and processed.

“Those institutions stand to benefit from the ‘pause’ in the enforcement of shifting NCAA Policy and related legislation — including the postponement of corresponding penalties or, potentially, the complete dissolution of an infractions case — because those investigations began at a later date, were more complex, and/or those institutions elected to obfuscate or prolong an investigation.”

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