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The NCAA says it didn’t tell Tennessee State to remove ‘specific GoFundMe accounts’ for a critically injured player

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Previously, it had been reported that the NCAA advised Tennessee State that external fundraising efforts for Christion Abercrombie would put his eligibility in jeopardy.

NCAA Football: Tennessee State at Vanderbilt
Tennessee State linebacker Christion Abercrombie tackling Vanderbilt QB Kyle Shurmur on Saturday.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee State linebacker Christion Abercrombie suffered what the school called a “life-threatening” head injury during the Tigers’ Week 5 game at Vanderbilt. Abercrombie had emergency surgery after collapsing on the sideline. He’s been in critical condition.

While Abercrombie tries to heal, at least two people started GoFundMe accounts, aiming to help pay the linebacker’s medical expenses. The school requested those accounts be taken down, noting that they posed potential violations of NCAA rules. TSU has started its own GoFundMe for Abercrombie, with a goal of $250,000.

The Tennesseean reported Monday TSU asked for the shutdown of the other fundraisers “because of a potential violation of NCAA rules. The NCAA also told TSU any other crowd-funding attempts may put Abercrombie’s eligibility in jeopardy.” But the newspaper later removed the last part of that description, and the NCAA said on Tuesday:

On Monday, after the Tennesseean had reported that that the NCAA warned the school about the fundraisers’ effect on Abercrombie’s eligibility, SB Nation asked an NCAA spokeswoman a) if the organization had warned TSU of rules violations, and b) which rules those might be. She responded with this statement:

Contrary to inaccurate statements, the NCAA is working with Tennessee State and supports its efforts as the community rallies around Christion Abercrombie and his family.

The Tennesseean said insurance policies from TSU and the NCAA would pay for Abercrombie’s medical expenses. The NCAA added this on Tuesday:

Of course, head injuries can have consequences that last decades, and the NCAA and its schools don’t usually stick around to help players long after they leave.

The NCAA doesn’t have an ongoing fund for ex-players to pull from in cases like this, though it’s reached a settlement in a related case.

This post initially ran under the headline: “Why would the NCAA stop a GoFundMe to help a critically injured linebacker?” That was an honest question. The NCAA has insisted it did not. Tennessee State said on Monday that the organization advised as much, but that report’s no longer where it initially was. We’ll update this post if there are any further developments.

It was never immediately clear which NCAA rules a GoFundMe to help a critically injured athlete would break.

At least not on its own. The NCAA has nearly countless rules about the kinds of payments and benefits athletes can accept. There are specific restrictions on taking money from professional teams, agents, and businesses. But this is the rule about cash, with bolding from me:

Cash, or the equivalent thereof (e.g., trust fund), as an award for participation in competition at any time, even if such an award is permitted under the rules governing an amateur, non-collegiate event in which the individual is participating. An award or a cash prize that an individual could not receive under NCAA legislation may not be forwarded in the individual’s name to a different individual or agency.

The NCAA gets to decide what all of its rules mean and doesn’t have to answer to anyone about it. But fundraising for an injured player isn’t an “award for participation.” It’s not an award for anything. It’s an attempt to help an unpaid athlete and his family deal with the potentially massive medical expenses that could come with an injury like his.

TSU’s fundraiser is within the rules. The NCAA considers “life-threatening illness” and “events beyond the student-athlete’s control” as OK things for schools to fundraise on behalf of players for.

The rulebook is huge, and the NCAA could argue that some other rule gets broken when people send money toward a player’s medical expenses.

The NCAA could find, for instance, that an agent donated with the expectation that Abercrombie would later sign with their agency. That wouldn’t be allowed.

What the rules say isn’t as important as what the rules do.

In this case, it appears they at least informed TSU’s decision to ask that other fundraising drives be taken offline.

You can be the judge of how likely it is that businesspeople or professional teams would be using a medical fundraiser to try to game the system and bribe a critically injured redshirt sophomore FCS linebacker.

You can also be the judge of how the world would be worse off even in the wild event that such a thing did happen than the event of Abercrombie not getting all of that money at all.

TSU’s authorized fundraiser had raised more than $25,000 just after 6 p.m. ET on Tuesday.