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Jaden Rashada alleges ‘false promises’ by Florida coach Billy Napier, others in lawsuit


Jaden Rashada alleges ‘false promises’ by Florida coach Billy Napier, others in lawsuit

Former Florida quarterback signee Jaden Rashada is suing Gators coach Billy Napier, a former UF staffer and a major university booster, alleging they made “false and fraudulent promises” to induce Rashada to sign with the program in 2022.

Rashada initially committed to Miami in June 2022, prior to his senior year of high school, but flipped to Florida five months later upon signing a staggering four-year, $13.85 million contract with the Gator Collective, a now-defunct organization that brokered name, image and likeness (NIL) deals for Florida athletes.

Weeks later, however, the collective terminated his deal before it was to pay him a scheduled $500,000 signing bonus. In doing so, Rashada claims, he lost a $9.5 million deal he had in place with a Miami mega-booster.

The suit alleges the co-defendants continued making financial promises to entice Rashada to sign in December, which he did shortly after “Coach Napier himself vouch(ed) that UF alumni were good on their promise that Jaden would receive $1 million if he signed with UF on National Signing Day.”

The unusual NIL bidding war between Florida and Miami boosters for Rashada, as detailed by The Athletic in a story last year, came amid the emergence of school-specific NIL collectives — independent organizations that provide monetary NIL opportunities for college athletes predominantly by fundraising money from donors, fans and boosters. Less than two years later, collectives are ubiquitous and play a key role in college football recruiting.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, alleges six counts of fraud, negligence and tortious interference against Napier; a former football staff member, Marcus Castro-Walker, who served as the football program’s director of NIL; Florida mega-booster Hugh Hathcock; and an automotive business of Hathcock’s. Florida fired Castro-Walker on Feb. 1, shortly after The Athletic reported he was one of the subjects of a since-paused NCAA investigation into Rashada’s recruitment.

“We do not comment on ongoing litigation, and neither the University Athletic Association nor the University are named in the complaint. The UAA will provide for Coach Napier’s personal counsel, and we will direct all questions to those representatives,” said Florida athletics spokesperson Steve McClain in a statement.

The suit seeks damages “exceed(ing) the sum or value of $10 million.”

“Sadly, this type of fraud is becoming more commonplace in the Wild West that is today’s college NIL landscape,” said Rusty Hardin, an attorney representing Rashada. “Wealthy alumni, consumed by their schools’ athletic programs, are taking advantage of young people by offering them life-changing sums of money, only to renege on their commitments. As the first scholar-athlete to take a stand against this egregious behavior, Jaden seeks to hold these defendants accountable for their actions and to expose their as-yet unchecked abuse of power.”

Rashada, who was released from his Florida letter of intent in January 2023, eventually signed with Arizona State, where he started the Sun Devils’ 2023 season-opener as a freshman. He recently announced his decision to transfer to Georgia, a rival of Florida’s. Napier avoided specifics when asked about Rashada’s departure at the time, but spoke broadly about NIL to the Associated Press, saying, ” I think the reality is the current structure of NIL with third parties being involved, with agents being involved, with marketing representatives, with lawyers, with collectives, (is) very fluid, and I think a very unique dynamic.”

Hardin, who has represented high-profile sports figures like Roger Clemens, Adrian Peterson and Deshaun Watson, said he was retained by the family in January 2023 but had held off filing a suit in hopes the NCAA’s investigation into Florida and Miami’s recruitment of Rashada would be resolved.

“Jaden was indecisive (about suing) for a while,” Hardin said. “He likes Napier personally. But he became aware of more and more players — maybe not at this kind of level, with this much money being offered — that were having the same experience.”

The suit alleges that Hathcock, a wealthy Florida benefactor, began pursuing Rashada around the same time Rashada committed to Miami, verbally offering an $11 million NIL deal to pick the Gators instead of the Hurricanes. Some media outlets reported that Rashada had a $9.5 million deal in place with a Miami booster. By October, Hathcock had sweetened the deal by nearly $3 million to get Rashada to flip, according to the suit. The suit cites an Oct. 27 text from Castro-Walker to one of the player’s NIL agents, Jackson Zager, stating: “You already know what we need to do over the next few days!! Get us the QB. ????????.”

The suit claims Hathcock planned to fund the eventual $13.85 million offer partially through his business, Velocity Automotive, which is named as a co-defendant, but the contract offer itself came from the Gator Collective.

The suit cites several texts between Eddie Rojas, CEO of the Gator Collective, and Zager, including: “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.” As well as: “We are going to have to dodge the freaks in Miami[.] I hate Miami.  This is going to be fun to watch.”

Rashada publicly announced his flip from Miami to Florida on Nov. 10, 2022.

NCAA rules prohibit schools from using NIL money as a recruiting inducement, and at the time of these events, boosters and NIL collectives were prohibited from discussing financial terms with recruits. However, a judge’s preliminary injunction in March prohibited the NCAA from enforcing those rules. The NCAA subsequently paused investigations like the one into Florida.

According to the suit, over the next several weeks, various individuals connected to Hathcock, including Castro-Walker, assured Rashada’s representatives that Hathcock would make the $500,000 payment. Instead, the collective terminated the agreement on Dec. 6. The next day, Castro-Walker told the agents that Hathcock still planned to pay the $13.85 million, but it would come from his own announced collective, called the Gator Guard.

As the Dec. 21 early signing period approached, the suit alleges that Jaden asked his father, Harlen, and his agents, “Can I sign?” to which Zager replied: “Not yet.” Castro-Walker “called Harlen to give assurance that Jaden would receive $500,000 and all promised payments going forward.”

Napier’s scheduled National Signing Day news conference was delayed while Rashada continued to hold out. Around that time is when Napier allegedly contacted Harlen, who relayed to Rashada’s agents: “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.”

The suit says Jaden signed less than an hour after that conversation.

According to the suit, the only money Rashada received from the Florida camp was a $150,000 wire transfer from Hathcock so that “Jaden could avoid possible litigation with Miami booster John Ruiz, who was seeking repayment from the $9.5 million NIL deal after Jaden flipped his commitment from Miami to UF.”

The Athletic’s February 2023 story said that Rashada had already received “about $125,000” from Ruiz’s company, LifeWallet. Ruiz told The Athletic at the time that “there was no agreement between Rashada and LifeWallet for $9.5 million or nothing even remotely close to that.”

“That’s not true,” said Hardin. “He can say there’s no written contract, but oral contracts are the same thing.” (Oral contracts are enforceable in the state of Florida.)

Ruiz released the following statement to The Athletic Tuesday morning: “LifeWallet nor John H. Ruiz ever had any deal with Rashada that amounted to 9.5 million dollars.  LifeWallet had a very small deal with Rashada while he was a (high) school student in California. Rashada and his father are stand up individuals. To date, I personally have a very good relationship with both. They both know we dealt with them honestly and fairly as we have always done with all NIL players. LifeWallet has a track record of complying with all of its NIL deals. LifeWallet was repaid by those controlling the Gators fundraising efforts. While I have my own view of this matter, at this point the interests of this young man should be the focus.”

Having previously committed to or signed with three schools, Miami, Florida, and Arizona State, Rashada is expected to report to Georgia for summer workouts next month.

“Similarly to his decision to attend Arizona State, Jaden’s decision to attend Georgia this year was not in response to any promises, assurances, or offers connected to NIL money,” the suit says. “He had learned his lesson.”

Castro-Walker did not immediately return calls and text messages for comment. When The Athletic contacted Velocity Automotive seeking comment from Hathcock, an employee said Hathcock sold the company.

Read the full lawsuit here.

Go deeper

Read The Athletic’s investigative reporting into Jaden Rashada’s recruitment here.

(Photo of Billy Napier: James Gilbert / Getty Images)

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