The first year of NIL has been perhaps the most turbulent in the history of the NCAA. One of those in the eye of the NIL hurricane is attorney Michael W. Caspino with Forward Counsel in Newport Beach, Calif.
Caspino is well-known in the legal community for his work as a first-chair trial attorney in hundreds of cases across the country. His trials often involve high-stakes litigation in business and employment law. Caspino also has represented Catholic Church organizations in a wide array of cases.
But Caspino became a household name in college sports when it was revealed he represented a five-star recruit who signed a NIL deal with a collective worth an estimated $8 million. The money is contingent on the student-athlete making public appearances, taking part in social media promotions and other NIL activities on behalf of the collective or a third party.
The deal rocked the college football world. It sent so many shockwaves one Big 12 assistant said, “recruiting as we’ve known it is dead.”
Regardless of your view, it was a significant moment that transformed Caspino into “the nation’s NIL lawyer.” He’s now working on deals for more than 100 four- and five-star recruits in football and basketball.
$8 million deal made people realize NIL’s scope
While Caspino has not revealed the name of his $8 million client, it’s widely believed Tennessee quarterback commitment Nico Iamaleava is the recruit with the deal. Caspino said when he first started working on the deal, he didn’t know it would become such a transformative moment in the NIL world.
But he started to understand when he reviewed the numbers – $350,000 immediately and a monthly payment that increases to more than $2 million per year once the recruit begins his college career – that it was a game-changer.
“At one point, obviously, when we got down to the numbers that we got to, it was, ‘Yeah, yeah,’” Caspino told On3. “It really hasn’t sunk in. I just keep working, that’s all. You just keep your head down and just keep doing the same thing. But it certainly has helped to set the market. Everybody knows what the market is in some respects.”
That market ranges by position, Caspino said. The going rate for five-star quarterbacks is $2 million per year. Defensive linemen, especially edge rushers, are getting seven-figure deals, and some highly talented offensive linemen and lock-down corners can command high six- or seven-figure deals.
“I think it was a seismic moment from the standpoint that people did not understand until then what the true value of the deals were,” Caspino said. “I think there were a lot of people that thought that NIL amounts to kids getting $5,000 to sign autographs for five hours at a car dealership. They didn’t realize the complete scope of it.”
Early NIL contracts were ‘crap’
Caspino did realize the scope. That’s especially true after he was asked by some recruits to review their deals last summer when NIL became legal in a handful of states and the NCAA adopted its interim policy.
“They were crap,” Caspino said. “They were not NCAA-compliant. Secondly, they were essentially one-sided deals meant to put the kids into indentured servitude. There was about a four- or five-month process where I pushed back against all of the collectives and said, ‘We’re not signing this. We’re not signing this.’ And that worked into my five- to six-page contract that is now kind of the accepted contract in the industry.”
On3 talked to four other NIL experts, including several attorneys, who agreed Caspino’s contract has become the “go-to-deal” in the industry. On3 also independently reviewed a standard NIL contract from Caspino to confirm the language in the deal seemingly would make it compliant with existing bylaws – even the NCAA’s guidance issued last week that was aimed at limiting the impact of collectives and boosters that facility NIL deals for athletes.
‘I have most of the 5 stars’
That contract – along with attention generated from the $8 million deal – made Caspino a hot commodity. More and more recruits are turning to Caspino for help navigating the murky NIL waters.
“I have most of the five stars and most of the four stars in this country,” Caspino said. “I’m well over 100 kids. Easily. I have a spreadsheet to keep up with it.”
An SEC football recruiting coordinator believes that figure. An ACC basketball assistant said, “Mike is a stud. He works with so many guys. It’s crazy.” Furthermore, On3 verified with family members of several heralded recruits that Caspino is representing them. They cannot be identified because of confidentiality agreements.
“Mike really helped us,” one parent said. “I don’t know what we would have done without his help.”
Another parent said Caspino is “absolutely the best,” and “he fought for our son every day.”
The confirmation further proves Caspino’s place as a leader in the NIL world.
“A lot of it’s from coaches,” Caspino said. “A lot of it is families reaching out because they want quality representation. I don’t charge the families for my work. We give, what I believe, is the absolute best legal advice. We have the best finger on the pulse of what the market is and the best experience. And we charge the families nothing.
“I send my bills to the collectives. It’s good business for everybody. Most of these kids I work with don’t have access to attorneys or the money to get an attorney. It’s good business for the collective because they’re then certain that they’re getting a legally enforceable document. The kid is signing something after having had adequate legal advice, so it’s a win-win for everyone.”
Caspino helps recruits prepare for their futures
Another thing helping Caspino when it comes to building relationships with recruits is that he knows what they’re going through – especially the parents.
Caspino’s son, Sam, just went through the recruiting process. He’s a senior tight end at Rancho Santa Margarita (Calif.) Santa Margarita Catholic and is walking-on at SMU.
“I’m not just about making money with these kids,” Caspino said. “I’ve been doing law for 30 years. It’s extremely rewarding to be able to help young men in … how do I put it … a crazy time in their life. Help guide them. Keep them grounded.”
To help reinforce that point Caspino has “three essential rules” with every recruit he represents.
First, he makes sure his clients use some of the proceeds to get a disability insurance policy. Second, he requires them to use a certified public accountant to put money aside to pay taxes. Tax implications are a point of major concern with a number of NIL observers. Finally, he insists they put two-thirds of the money generated into stable investments for the future.
“I’m not as successful with that one,” Caspino said. “But I use the one-third, two-third rule. You can spend one-third, and two-thirds need to be invested. I put them together with really good investment people, who not only invest their money but also explain to them why they’re investing money in certain stocks. So, we’re educating the kids on money management.
“Those rules are extremely important things for me with these kids. They are non-negotiables. Somebody says to me, ‘No, we’re not going to waste the money on a disability policy.’ I say, ‘Go find somebody else to work with.’ I just want to make sure that these kids are taken care of.”
Caspino relishes role as an advocate
Yes, there are financial motivations behind Caspino’s work in the NIL world. There also are plenty of critics. Collectives and their impact on the recruiting trail have become lightning rods in college athletics in the past few months. Recruiters, especially on the football side, say they can’t compete against a lucrative deal and that NIL beats the perfect recruiting pitch.
“It’s such a factor now you could do everything right and do everything perfect and out-recruit everybody, but you can lose a guy because of the NIL opportunities,” Penn State coach James Franklin recently said.
Caspino hears the criticism. But he’s a staunch advocate of student-athlete rights, especially because universities and the NCAA have made billions of dollars off of players’ Name, Image and Likeness for decades.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in the Alston v. NCAA case further strengthened Caspino’s belief in student-athlete rights. It was a ruling that signaled to the NCAA that it would be vulnerable to legal action if it greatly interfered with NIL activities.
If the court’s decision wasn’t enough to prove this, Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s opinion sealed it. He wrote of the NCAA, “Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate… And under ordinary principles of antitrust law, it is not evident why college sports should be any different.”
Caspino says there’s another part of the equation that hasn’t been talked about much when it comes to NIL.
“It was very well captured by Justice Kavanaugh when he says the majority of kids we’re talking about are African American,” Caspino said. “They’re from extremely poor circumstances. The predominant kids I deal with are African American and socio-economically very, very far down on the totem pole. What you have are these 60- and 70-year-old white guys in conference leaders and athletic directors complaining about these African Americans making money. That’s not a good look.”
On their side
All of this is why Caspino recently told The Athletic, “The moment they come to try to interfere with one of my clients’ deals – the next day is the moment they get hit with an antitrust lawsuit.”
“The one thing that drives me crazy is when people try to claim that these athletes are being greedy,” Caspino told On3. “That is really bothersome. That’s someone who doesn’t really understand what’s going on here and doesn’t understand history. It’s about 60, 70 years of the NCAA and academic institutions making millions of dollars off these kids.
“For a lot of decades, poor African American kids have been going off to play football at Vanderbilt – where everybody’s got the Lamborghini. How do you think they felt when they couldn’t go out and get a hamburger? So, I have a really high degree of empathy for their situation. I really do.”
All of this fuels Caspino’s drive. Yet, there’s also a real sense he genuinely cares for the recruits and their families. And those who talk with him – even just for a few minutes – understand he takes great pride in making a difference.
“In my experience, high school athletes don’t have an advantage against the power and influence of the marketers and promoters,” Caspino said. “It’s my goal to change that. The greatest sin in these NIL agreements is found in the exploitation of the athlete’s potential future earnings.
“These athletes need to know they have advocates on their side, so they don’t mortgage their lives away.”