Death of a football player

No family should have to face what Rocky and Annette Clark did after he was rendered quadriplegic in a football game.

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.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

12 thoughts on “Death of a football player”

  1. I agree the socialized medicine 100%, but I don’t take football injuries and (more importantly) a dangerous car-dominated society as a given. Both are barbaric. These things are choices we don’t have to make.

  2. What I have long wondered is why business doesn’t wake up and become the biggest screaming advocates of single-payer imaginable, as the real issue in so many personal injury lawsuits is peoples’ stark terror, justifiably so, at being left to suffer losses without health coverage.

    When you hear hypocritical idiots like Rick Brown Ring of Santorum call for caps on pain and suffering (despite his wife’s $500,000 suit and $350,000 award on $18,000 of medical bills) what they don’t say is that for most people, the reason they can’t accept a paltry settlement is that the system will screw them forever, either denying them coverage at all (to 2014) or making it flatly unaffordable.

    If you want to reduce the cost of litigation (an overhyped problem , but let’s assume it was one) then you could make nearly every lawsuit one massively lot easier to settle just by making sure everyone has access to health care as a right, not a matter of fortune.

    No coincidence that rich countries with little use of tort suits are those where an unlucky injury is just that, and not a high probability path to misery and poverty.

    1. The approach a business might take to the personal-injury-suit problem depends on how much power the business feels it has. Sure, for the average business, universal coverage would be better (especially because you avoid the deadweight cost of litigation). But for the biggest companies there’s the alternative of buying legislation that limits damages and prevents access to the courts. And of employing a scorched-earth policy against claimants that — although it may raise costs in a given case — will deter claims in general. (There is some longstanding reporting on this in the case of Walmart, which apparently used to not only employ the usual legal delaying and cost-increasing tactics but also harass claimants, bar them from the premises, usw.)

    2. The insistence of the business executive class on advocating for their class interest as opposed to their economic interest is one of the most puzzling aspects of health care politics in America.

  3. As for litigation, I know that in Mississippi – and I doubt it’s unique on this – school districts are immune from suit for their negligence in allowing players to be injured or killed at practices or games, because it’s “discretionary” to have a football team at all.

    A few years back there was a boy who incurred brain damage after suffering heatstroke during practice; when he told the coach he needed to take a break, he was given laps to run instead. No liability, held the Miss. Supreme Court.

    (And even if there had been, the state tort claims act would’ve capped it at $500K.)

    1. The system is self-correcting — that child will not go out for football again.

      Baruch ha Shuk, ha dayan emet.

  4. I don’t agree with Professor Pollack on the Affordable Care Act. While some would say it’s in bad taste to use a particular case to make a more general legislative point (also imprudent: hard cases make bad law), I think it’s fine that Professor Pollack uses Rocky Clark or his brother-in-law Vincent to push for his preferred healthcare policies.

    But isn’t the most direct answer that we ought to seriously modify the rules of tackle football? Anything that leads to that much traumatic brain injury on the part of uninformed participants cries out for remedy. Besides, we have the technology to save players’ brains today.

    (Professor Pollack, you should quit plumping for the unaffordable “Affordable Care Act” and get on board with The Purple Health Plan and coming Presidency of Lawrence Kotlikoff.)

    1. Interesting link to the padded helmet story. I remember when baseball players started being required to wear batting helmets. IIRC there was similar resistance to the idea, but it faded quickly.

    2. Your link leads to a plan that has “federal health care expenditures strictly capped”,
      universal private health care, “medical malpractice reform” emphasized. In other words,
      the government won’t pay for too much medical care, vouchers instead of Medicare,
      and the magic of private plans will solve everything.

      Market fundamentalism at its finest. Why is 10% of GDP the spending limit? Because!
      Why private plans instead of a universal government plans? Because markets!

      Aspects of this could make sense, but there is a lot of shredding of the safety net
      embedded in a lot of those items…

  5. Universal health care, which I support 100%, would still not provide for lost wages (both injured and caregiver), making a house handicap-accessible, or any of the myriad other financial costs of catastrophic injury, never mind the non-financial costs.

    1. This is true. It would be much easier to afford all of the rest if the med bills weren’t eating everything in sight. Bottom line is that we live in a country which does not respect human beings and the life experience as evidenced by our official policies.

      I suppose one could argue that the fiscal savings alone of Single Payer health care would allow additional revenue with which to supplement the budgets of people whose loved ones were disabled and dependent, or the services needed. Jobs!

      Of course we had massive projected and real surpluses in 2000 which could have been used to enhance any number of Public socially beneficial programs, “home improvement writ large” if you will, but those possibilities were ignored. The “Public” officials were not mindful of the Public or the country as a whole. There exists a dearth of shared vision and group consciousness in almost all levels of American government and business.

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