Jaden Rashada sues Billy Napier, Florida booster over NIL deal

Why Jaden Rashada won't be last athlete to file a lawsuit over NIL deal (1:27)

Paula Lavigne notes that former Florida recruit Jaden Rashada is the first athlete to file a lawsuit over an NIL deal, but she anticipates he won't be the last. (1:27)

Former University of Florida football recruit Jaden Rashada is suing coach Billy Napier, along with a big-time Gator booster and others, claiming they defrauded him out of millions of dollars by backing out of a promised $13.85 million agreement after the quarterback had turned down offers tied to other programs.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday includes an allegation that Rashada signed his national letter of intent to Florida on Dec. 21, 2022, less than an hour after Napier promised the player's father a $1 million "partial payment" that day upon signing. Rashada never received the $1 million, and the boosters never fulfilled the deal, the lawsuit states.

Rashada is the first known college athlete to sue his coach or a booster due to a dispute of a name, image and likeness (NIL) deal. His case, filed in the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Florida, comes during a tumultuous time for the relatively new NIL market for college athletes. A mixture of state laws and evolving NCAA guidance dictates the roles that coaches, schools and donor groups known as collectives all play in facilitating the deals athletes can now strike to make money.

"Sadly, unethical and illegal tactics like this are more and more commonplace in the Wild West that is today's college football landscape," the lawsuit states. "As the first scholar-athlete to take a stand against such egregious behavior by adults who should know better, Jaden seeks to hold Defendants accountable for their actions and to expose the unchecked abuse of power that they shamelessly wielded."

"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," Florida athletics spokesman Steve McClain wrote in a text message.

By signing with Florida, Rashada turned away from a prior commitment to the University of Miami and a promise there of $9.5 million, the lawsuit states, which is a portion of the damages Rashada is claiming. It alleges several counts pertaining to fraud, negligence and interference with a business contract.

The filing includes text messages Marcus Castro-Walker, a defendant in the lawsuit who had been Florida's director of player engagement and NIL, sent to Rashada's NIL agents, including one on Oct. 27, 2022, that read, "You already know what we need to do over the next few days. Get us the QB." Another text sent three days later read, "We need to lock down Jaden!"

On national signing day, after one version of the contract had already been terminated, Castro-Walker "threatened" that if Rashada didn't sign with Florida, "Coach Napier might walk away from Jaden entirely," the lawsuit states. It is unclear to whom the threat was delivered.

Castro-Walker is no longer at Florida, and ESPN reported earlier this year that the NCAA had started an investigation into the failed deal. Investigators interviewed Rashada last year, sources with direct knowledge told ESPN. It is against NCAA rules to use NIL deals to induce a prospect to attend a particular school and for boosters to take part in the recruiting process. However, any NCAA enforcement cases related to NIL rule violations have been largely at a standstill since late February when a federal judge in Tennessee granted an injunction that prohibits the NCAA from punishing any athletes or boosters for negotiating NIL deals during the recruiting process.

One source of the promised $13.85 million was Hugh Hathcock, a names-on-the-buildings eight-figure donor to Gators athletics. Hathcock is also a defendant in the lawsuit along with his Destin, Florida, auto dealership Velocity Automotive.

It states Hathcock approached Rashada when Rashada visited Florida in June 2022 and said he would get the quarterback "whatever [he] needed" and mentioned a possible job for Rashada's father. Later that summer, the lawsuit states, Hathcock put a dollar figure on that deal: $11 million.

By then, Rashada had made a verbal commitment to Miami and the offer of a $9.5 million NIL deal, which was widely reported in the media at the time. According to the filing, Florida's "pressure campaign" came back with an offer of $13.85 million over four years: $5.35 million from Hathcock -- including a $500,000 "signing bonus" through Velocity Automotive -- and the remainder paid through Hathcock's NIL collective Gator Guard.

As the contract details were coming together on Nov. 10, 2022, Hathcock objected to using his company -- which the lawsuit states he mentioned having plans to sell -- or the collective to directly fund the NIL payments. He worked alongside athletic department representative Castro-Walker to run the money through the Gator Collective, another NIL group that had separate management, according to the filing.

Later that night, Rashada went to Twitter -- now known as X -- to announce his flip to Florida.

The Athletic, which reported last year it reviewed a copy of the contract, noted that after the $500,000 payment, Rashada would receive $250,000 monthly payments as a freshman. The installments would increase his sophomore and junior year and end with $195,833.33 monthly payments his senior year as long as he fulfilled certain promotional and social media obligations and resided in Gainesville, Florida.

On Dec. 6, 2022, less than a month after Rashada announced his flip to Florida, he received a letter from the Gator Collective "purporting to terminate" the $13.85 million NIL contract, the lawsuit states. Sources familiar with the negotiations told ESPN that the version of the contract Rashada signed included a provision that it could be terminated only with cause, although the letter didn't note a specific one.

After that, in what the lawsuit calls a violation of Florida law, Napier and Castro-Walker told Rashada they would "make good" on the promised deal and Castro-Walker later told Rashada's agents that Hathcock and his Gator Guard collective would "personally guarantee" the $13.85 million.

Three days later, it notes, Hathcock did wire $150,000 to Rashada so the player could avoid potential litigation and pay back money he had received from John Ruiz, the Miami booster involved with the $9.5 million offer there. It would be the only money Rashada received from the Florida deal.

Ruiz, the founder of NIL marketing platform LifeWallet, wrote in a text message to ESPN that the $150,000 was repaid by "those controlling the Gators fundraising efforts" and represented the full amount of the deal he had with Rashada, which was when he was in California where he attended high school. He wrote neither he nor LifeWallet had any $9.5 million deal with Rashada.

By Dec. 19, 2022, Rashada still had no NIL contract to sign, and the amounts in discussion were far less than the $13.85 million promised, according to the filing and sources familiar with the negotiations.

On signing day, wary of the lack of a written contract for the NIL money, Rashada's agents told him not to sign his letter of intent yet. This prompted Napier to call Rashada and his father, the lawsuit states, and it was during this call that he promised the $1 million payment. Rashada signed with Florida that night.

"Once Jaden committed to UF, rather than make Jaden 'rich' as promised, these people -- with Hathcock leading the charge -- changed their tune and went back on their word. The amount of UF-affiliated NIL money available for Jaden decreased drastically," the lawsuit states. It doesn't specify how much, but sources told ESPN it was less than half.

The lawsuit references Napier, Hathcock and Castro-Walker "knowing that they lacked both the intention and the ability to fulfill" the offer, but it doesn't include documents or correspondence to show that knowledge.

When reached Tuesday by email, a representative for Velocity Automotive said Hathcock was no longer with the company. He is still listed as the owner on LinkedIn. Records filed with the Florida Division of Corporations in February 2023 show Hathcock was removed as an authorized member, which is typically an owner.

Rashada was not made available for an interview, but his attorney Rusty Hardin told ESPN that Rashada was motivated to pursue the case to bring to light other examples of "overzealous alumni" taking advantage of athletes in NIL offers.

"It's a classic con game on a 19-year-old," Hardin said. "We've taken away our commitment in writing to you, but, trust us, not only is the check in the mail, but you can be comfortable you're going to get X. ... And it never happened. ... And he leaves not for the money, but because he can no longer trust them."

With no payment other than the $150,000, on Jan. 18, 2023, Rashada withdrew his official intent to play for Florida. Instead, he chose Arizona State, where his father had played. After one season there, Rashada transferred to the University of Georgia for this upcoming season. In both cases, the lawsuit states, his move was not contingent on any NIL offers.