Death of a Football Player

My daughters’ high school plays football every year against Eisenhower High School in nearby Blue Island. I’m guessing that not too many Eisenhower voters still live in this economically embattled south-suburban community.

Eleven years ago, one of Eisenhower’s fine players, Rocky Clark, was rendered quadriplegic by a mishap on the gridiron. For years, his mother Annette Clark cared for him at home. As recounted in a poignant commentary by Sun Times’ sports writer Rick Telander, it wasn’t easy or pleasant to care for a loved one trapped in an essentially useless and immobile human body. As Telander relates:

Without the most obvious thing every football player at every level should have—lifetime health insurance for the worst of injuries—Annette had to become the round-the-clock nurse in a role that stole her life.

Rocky’s main health insurance coverage ran out nearly two years ago, and Annette was forced to cut his pills in half, sleeping no more than three hours at a time, becoming a kind of Mother Sisyphus, rolling the medical stone up the hill each day so her only son could live.

She had helpers—her two daughters, Deacon Don Grossnickle…The Rev. Anthony Williams…but it wasn’t enough.

Rocky died last Thursday night. His mother is grieving, and she’s apparently in financial trouble. She has a funeral to finance. She has a mortgage and stacks of medical bills she really can’t pay….

This case has received attention across Chicagoland. The Clark family’s predicament has spurred calls for new legislation, “Rocky’s law,” to ensure that all high school athletes have adequate catastrophic health insurance coverage. Such legislation would certainly be helpful. It might provide a salutary financial reminder of what can happen to even the healthiest and strongest athletes in the wrong moment of a football game.

Of course, calls for such legislation also miss the broader point. For every athlete paralyzed on the gridiron, there are many others who suffer some equally catastrophic fate at the bottom of the family pool, behind the wheel of a car, or (too often around these parts) as the result of a gunshot or a blow to the head. Others become severely impaired from cancer, heart disease, stroke, or congenital anomalies. Human bodies are fragile, and sometimes break.

No one facing devastating illness or injury should have to worry about running out of money. No caregiver should have to live as Annette Clark did. People need help from family and friends. They also need help from government.

A section of the Affordable Care Act will make such tragedies less likely. Lifetime limits on most essential benefits are banned. ACA requires insurers to phase out annual dollar-coverage limits on most covered benefits. This year, no insurance plan can set an annual dollar limit lower than $1.25 million. I could go into the somewhat elaborate details, though these might seem opaque and boring.

These details would seem less boring if you were facing Rocky Clark’s situation, or if you were Annette Clark, preparing to bury her own son before facing those unpaid medical bills.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.