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Mike Bianchi: Florida Gators’ $13 million gaffe with Jaden Rashada is biggest fail of NIL

ORLANDO, Fla. — Jaden Rashada, one of the top high school recruits in the country, deserves absolutely none of the blame for this embarrassing mistake and fractured relationship with the University of Florida.

Football coach Billy Napier and athletic director Scott Stricklin certainly deserve some of the blame for what appears to be a Name, Image and Likeness program at UF that has committed the biggest PR blunder of college football’s new pay-for-play era.

But if you’re looking for something or somebody to heap most of the blame upon for this Gator gaffe, blame this insane new system that puts fans and boosters in charge of paying players under the guise of NIL.

According to Sentinel sources, UF’s school-promoted NIL operation — the Gator Collective — essentially wrote a $13 million check to Rashada, the California quarterback who was the centerpiece of Napier’s 2023 recruiting class. More precisely, somebody in the Gator Collective negotiated the obscenely exorbitant $13 million contract with Rashada with one major problem: The Gator Collective didn’t have the money in its coffers and the big-money boosters refused to ante up and fund such an absurd contract.

Rashada, as any of us would do if somebody reneged on a contract and refused to pay us the money we agreed upon, is said to be considering his legal options. Could he sue the Gator Collective for his money? And is the University of Florida itself in any way legally responsible considering UF has publicly promoted the Gator Collective and has made it clear this is the school’s preferred NIL fund-raising arm?

At the very least, UF says it will release Rashada from the National Letter of Intent he signed with the school in December if that’s indeed what the player desires. As of Friday evening, Rashada had not yet enrolled at UF and was back home in northern California. Even if Rashada changes his mind and joins the Gators in the coming days, much damage already has been done to the reputation of the university’s NIL collective and the trust between the player and the program.

Of course, this sort of thing was bound to happen in a new-age NIL world that has no real guidelines or guardrails. Seriously, what did the NCAA and state governments expect when they signed off on a bunch of emotional gung-ho boosters negotiating NIL deals with teenagers who have dollar signs in their eyes?

This is why universities, not their boosters and fans, should be negotiating the salaries and paying the players. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times: College football programs asking fans to pay the salaries of their workforce is the biggest business scam since bottled water. (Note: “Evian” spelled backward is “Naive.”)

Can you imagine if a professional sports owner asked fans to pay the salaries of the team’s athletes? Well, that’s exactly what college football programs are asking their fans and boosters to do with these so-called “NIL” deals.

Actually, we in the media need to stop referring to this stuff as “NIL” and call it what it is — “pay for play.” Let’s be honest, this has little to do with Name, Image and Likeness. This is simply what everybody knew it would become with boosters paying players (or, at least, promising to pay players) for signing with their team.

As for the Gators, it appears that “NIL” actually stands for “Not In the Loop.” Apparently Napier, Stricklin and the sugar-daddy boosters had no idea the Gator Collective had negotiated and signed this inane deal with Rashada. Obvious question: Doesn’t it seem inconceivable that UF’s football program has no oversight of the Gator Collective?

I realize it’s against NCAA rules for universities to be directly involved in these “NIL” deals, but isn’t Napier supposed to be Mr. Organization; a coach whose meticulous attention to detail was one of the main reasons Stricklin hired him?

And didn’t Stricklin give Napier the keys to the program and allow the new coach to hire an army of support staff for recruiting, NIL, player development, nutrition and so on? The Gators are spending mega-millions on all of these added staff members and Napier has quality control assistants to monitor every aspect of his program, yet there is not a proper structure in place for the school’s main NIL program — the Gator Collective — to negotiate with players?

Who in the Gator Collective thought it would be OK to sign a unproven high school player to a $13 million contract? Would Napier, who often talks about building chemistry, camaraderie and culture in the locker room, actually put his stamp of approval on such a crazy, culture-eroding contract? If Napier did know about the offer to Rashada, then why didn’t he stop it? And if he didn’t know, then why didn’t he know?

If UF’s coach runs such a tight ship, how can the Gators have an NIL program where the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing?

In the embarrassing case of Jaden Rashada, Billy Napier’s tight ship looks more like the S.S. Minnow that ended up marooned on Gilligan’s Island.

After playing in the Jan. 3 Under Armour Next All-American game in Orlando, quarterback Jaden Rashada was supposed to enroll early at the University of Florida. He didn't. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

After playing in the Jan. 3 Under Armour Next All-American game in Orlando, quarterback Jaden Rashada was supposed to enroll early at the University of Florida. He didn’t. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

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