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T.A. Cunningham left homeless, without football due to ugly side of NIL

T.A. Cunningham
Photo credit: 247Sports

T.A. Cunningham was given a false promise. 

The result has become an ever-growing mountain of problems. At the forefront of his issues is a legal battle with the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) who deemed him ineligible to play this season.

On Thursday, after weeks of legal meetings, Cunningham’s team, led by Michael Caspino, filed an emergency injunction in Orange County Superior Court in attempt to immediately overturn the ruling.

In June, Cunningham made a life-altering move to California following his family’s eviction from their home in Georgia.

The Levels Group, an NIL company who formerly represented fellow Los Alamitos teammate Malachi Nelson, organized a plan to move Cunningham to California to earn NIL deals in order to support his family.

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The court filing shows text messages sent between Cunningham’s father, Terrence, and The Levels Group’s co-founders Justin Giangrande and Chris Flores, organizing a plan that included housing, meals and transportation.

A contract signed by both parties on June 28 states that the Levels Group would receive 20% commission on all deals, plus any expenses incurred.

Cunningham’s transfer to Los Alamitos would have been on the grounds of hardship, allowing him to be immediately eligible.

However, the CIF denied the defensive lineman’s request on grounds that Cunningham “does not meet the definition of a ‘homeless student’ and/or has failed to establish that his change of school was due to a hardship.”

Once Cunningham moved to California with his brother T.K. in July, they moved in with Flores, but were quickly thrusted back onto the street when Flores was arrested on multiple counts of sexual assault of a minor a month later.

Their promises were never kept by the Levels Group, and their contract has since been terminated.

“Now, [Cunningham] is homeless,” the court filing reads. “He did not receive the NIL deals that were promised by the Levels Team. He has been victimized.”

The CIF eventually dropped its objections to Cunningham’s hardship claim, but is now investigating a charge of “undue influence,” inciting pre-enrollment tampering on the part of the coaching staff at Los Alamitos.

Darren Heitner, founder of Heitner Legal P.L.L.C, told The NIL Deal that the investigation for undue influence appears to be a major point of interest for the CIF.

“It appears to be the overwhelming interest of the high school athletic association, which is to avoid players shopping school-to-school and an influx of player movement at the high school level,” he said.

Judge Layne H. Melzer ruled Thursday that the CIF has until Sept. 27 to complete their investigation.

Even if the investigation falls in Cunningham’s favor, however, there is still potential he’s unable to play.

According to Bylaw 206(C)(10) of the CIF Parent Guideline Handbook, “a student may not be eligible to participate at the varsity level if there is evidence the move was athletically motivated or the student enrolled in that school in whole or in part for athletic reasons.”

The case the CIF will have against Cunningham, whether Los Alamitos is involved or not, is that Cunningham’s move was influenced by his ability to procure NIL deals.

Since the inception of NIL, the CIF has been staunch in their effort to ensure athletes do not transfer for NIL reasons, and that high schools aren’t involved in its players’ NIL opportunities.

The injunction request filed by Caspino states Cunningham’s move to California without his parents and over the past months has been temporarily bunking on teammates’ couches.

As of late, The Athletic reports Cunningham has been living at the home of Laura Hart, President of Los Alamitos Pop Warner, who is listed as Cunningham’s “parent/guardian/caregiver” on his transfer application.

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Additionally, the request states that following Flores’ arrest, Cunningham’s NIL opportunities have fallen apart.

As the top defensive lineman in the Class of 2024, Cunningham’s situation shows “the ugly side of NIL,” as Caspino put it.

“This situation should serve as a reminder to any high school or college athletes about how important it is to create a good team around you of people you trust and know the subject matter in the specific state you’re in whether it be agents, lawyers or accountants,” Dan Greene, NIL Attorney at Newman & Lickstein, told The NIL Deal. “At the end of the day, these kids just want to play the game that they love.”

He’s thousands of miles away from home, without the promised endorsements, unable to play the game he loves.

“Every week, I’m 100% sure he’s going to get cleared,” Los Alamitos coach Ray Fenton said. “And he still sits.”

Caspino told the Los Angeles Times, “I just don’t see them finding anything.”

Until the CIFs investigation is completed on Sept 27, Cunningham’s eligibility status is in limbo.