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Kadner: Schools should insure their athletes

NapoleHarris Annette Clark

Napoleon Harris and Annette Clark

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Updated: April 23, 2013 1:59PM



If high school football teams are going to put students at risk of a life-changing injury, they ought to at least make sure they’re properly insured.

Any student-athlete (gymnast, wrestler, swimmer or soccer player) ought to be covered. That’s the goal of legislation sponsored by state Sen. Napoleon Harris (D-Flossmoor).

Senate Bill 2178 is the first measure sponsored by Harris, a former NFL football player and Northwestern University star, since his election to the Senate in November.

Harris said he was inspired to back a catastrophic insurance bill by the story of Rocky Clark, “one of our own,” a Robbins resident and former football player at Eisenhower High School, who was injured during a game and became a quadriplegic. Clark died last year after a battle of more than 11 years that cost his family more than
$5 million in medical expenses.

Annette Clark, Rocky’s mother, testified on behalf of the bill at a hearing in Springfield on Wednesday.

“We ran through $1.1 million in the first year of Rocky’s injury,” Mrs. Clark told me. “I eventually had to put a mortgage on my house to pay for Rocky’s health care even though he had more than $5 million in catastrophic insurance through the school.

“He was supposed to live 10 years. He lived 11 1/2 years, and after the money ran out I wasn’t going to abandon Rocky. I took care of him. Made sure he had the medicine he needed. Made sure he had the equipment he needed.”

Clark’s maintenance care alone cost tens of thousands of dollars each year, not including frequent hospitalizations.

Catastrophic injuries among student-athletes are quite rare. Illinois has never required schools to provide insurance for such injury.

However, The Gridiron Alliance, headed by Deacon Don Grossnickle, of Arlington Heights, has been at the forefront of mandating catastrophic insurance since Rocky and Rob Komosa, a football player at Rolling Meadows High School, suffered such injuries in the 1990s. Komosa died last weekend.

John Byrne, superintendent of Community High School District 218, which includes Eisenhower, said his district carries catastrophic health insurance for all of its students.

“We ask parents to put these children in our care, and we’re responsible for their health and safety,” Byrne said.

“A student could have a catastrophic injury on a school bus or in a parking lot. These things aren’t restricted to a football field. And we know today that liability costs alone could run into the millions, so why not make sure the students are properly insured?”

Byrne said District 218 paid about $9,000 this year for catastrophic-injury policies that cover its roughly 6,000 students up to a limit of $7.5 million.

“The cost actually came down this year,” he said. “And if every school in the state were required to have catastrophic insurance, I would bet the cost would come down even more because the group would be larger.”

Nevertheless, Grossnickle has had a difficult time getting the support of the Illinois High School Association, which oversees high school athletics.

Harris said that has changed, and the IHSA is supporting his measure.

“I really haven’t heard any organization oppose the bill,” he said, adding that there are a few legislators who have voiced concerns about passing a mandate on schools at a time of decreasing state revenue.

“That’s always a concern,” Byrne said. “But Grossnickle has come up with several creative ways of finding the money in the past. It can be done. This is not a cost-prohibitive idea.”

Grossnickle has proposed that the IHSA and school districts share the cost of catastrophic policies. By charging 25 cents to a dollar more per ticket to IHSA events, he has suggested, the cost of the insurance might be covered.

He even asked the IHSA in the past to set up a booth at state tournaments to raise money through voluntary contributions and was refused.

“We all know there are going to be injuries on the football field,” Byrne said. “Fortunately, very few of them are the type that Rocky experienced.

“But if we’re going to put our kids out there knowing this sort of thing can happen, as responsible adults we ought to make sure they’re covered.

“More than 60 percent of my students here qualify for government lunch programs. I know a lot of those parents don’t have health insurance.

“Given the economy today, we can’t assume that families have health insurance to cover their children, and we ought to be doing our best to protect them. It’s just common sense.”

The NCAA provides catastrophic health insurance for every college athlete.

I met Rocky after his injury and before his death. Strapped to a bed, unable to move, his smile and optimism were infectious.

Until the day he died, he believed that some miracle would occur, and he would get out of his bed and walk again. One day he was running with a football on a sweep play, the next he couldn’t wipe a tear from his eye.

If we’re going to allow high schools to place students at risk of brain damage through concussions or of spinal injuries that leave them in wheelchairs or beds for the rest of their lives, we at least ought to make sure they will have the medical care to help them survive.

Adults have a responsibility to protect children.

Harris said he has not mandated a financing source for the insurance but wants a school district to provide coverage for up to $7.5 million or for 15 years, whichever comes first.

“They can do that through bake sales, ticket sales, donations, anything they want,” he said. “That’s up to them.”

I would conclude by stating it’s the right thing to do.



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