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Kadner: Davis backs move to insure student-athletes

Rocky Clark suffered spinal injury while playing football for Eisenhower High School Blue Island.  |  Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media

Rocky Clark suffered a spinal injury while playing football for Eisenhower High School in Blue Island. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 11, 2012 8:15AM



State Rep. Will Davis (D-Homewood) is ready to lead a crusade to provide every student-athlete in Illinois with catastrophic health insurance.

Davis said the life and death of Rasul “Rocky” Clark, a former football player at Eisenhower High School in Blue Island, inspired him to propose state legislation to protect student-athletes and their families.

“I admit that the language of this bill is still being formulated, and I’m going to be consulting with people who have been involved with this effort longer than I have to decide the best way to do this,” Davis said. “But Rocky Clark’s situation demonstrates the need to insure students involved in athletic activities in Illinois.”

Clark, of Robbins, was 16 when he was paralyzed from the neck down during a football game. He died last week at age 27.

Although covered by a catastrophic insurance policy from Community High School District 218, the policy reached its $5 million lifetime limit last year.

There is no requirement in Illinois for public schools to obtain catastrophic health insurance for student-athletes.

“Actually, we’re one of the few districts in Illinois to cover our students with catastrophic health insurance coverage,” District 218 Supt. John Byrne said. “I think it absolutely should be mandatory. And I think there should be coverage for those students who are injured and exceed the lifetime limits on their policies.”

Don Grossnickle, a Catholic deacon who founded the Gridiron Alliance to help disabled athletes, has been trying to get legislators to focus on the issue for more than a decade.

“Rocky was one of the founding members of the Gridiron Alliance, and it was his desire that every student-athlete in the nation be covered by catastrophic insurance,” Grossnickle said.

“It’s outrageous that we leave these youngsters and their families vulnerable to financial disaster if they suffer an injury like this on the field of play.”

Grossnickle has several ideas about how catastrophic health insurance could be provided for athletes.

“The NCAA does it for all of its athletes,” he said. “And I think the college sports world should provide a model of how to do it at the high school level.

“I think it should be a three-tiered process with the school providing a certain level of coverage, backed up by the school district and finally by the IHSA (Illinois High School Association).

“In a case like Rocky’s, after the school district’s $5 million policy ran out, the IHSA could have provided a back-up policy that kicks in and pays another $5 million after that.

“These are young men. Children, really. And they have the rest of their lives ahead of them. So, we should do whatever we have to do to make sure that if they cannot live a normal life at the age of 16, we take care of them.”

Grossnickle understands that education funding is under pressure during the current economic crisis.

“But there are ways to fund the insurance if you are creative,” he said. “The IHSA could charge an extra $1 for all of its tournaments with the money going to the cost of insurance.

“Most high schools charge an admission for games, and they could tack on an extra $1 for insurance.

“If booster clubs really want to do something beneficial, they could raise the money to cover the cost of catastrophic insurance. There’s a way to do this. We just have to find the will.”

Davis said parents ought to ask their schools if they provide catastrophic insurance before allowing their children to play organized sports.

“And I think after reading about Rocky’s situation, there ought to be real concern about the risks involved,” Davis said. “I understand that such injuries are rare, but you’re talking about a potential financial crisis that impacts the entire family.”

Minnesota requires that all student-athletes from seventh grade on be covered by a $2 million catastrophic insurance policy.

“In Illinois, about 95 percent of the schools have no catastrophic insurance for their athletes,” Grossnickle said. “They rely on parents’ health insurance to cover the costs if there is a serious injury.”

But millions of Americans today are uninsured, which is why there was a movement to pass national health insurance legislation.

More employers each year are refusing to offer health insurance, and more Americans each year are self-employed, working out of their homes without insurance.

When society puts a teenager’s health at risk, adults have a responsibility to ponder the ramifications.

“This will be Rocky’s Law,” Davis said. “He inspired it.”



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