Monday, April 11, 2011

Paralyzed Athlete Rocky Clark: Insurance Runs Out on His Mother

vRocky Clark

by Dr. Boyce Watkins, Syracuse UniversityScholarship in Action 

Note: To help Rocky Clark and his family, please visit

The story of Rasul "Rocky" Clark is a cautionary tale to all the mothers who send their sons to the football field on Saturday afternoon. Ten years ago, Clark was living the dream of many African American males: he was one of the stars of his high school football team, playing the game as running back.

Rocky's dream came to an end with one hit too many. The player was paralyzed from the neck down, rendering him unable to move, walk, stand up, or use his arms for the rest of his life. He will never run down the field, experience sex, wash himself or even breath properly again. He has one lung, and his life expectancy dropped dramatically on the day of his horrible injury. In fact, part of the reason his family is now broke is because medical experts and insurance companies didn't expect him to last for even a decade.
Rocky just found out that his $5 million dollar insurance policy has reached the lifetime maximum, meaning that his insurer is not going to pay anymore of his expenses.

"I was told I'd be taken care of all of my life," said Clark, who is now 27 years old. "That was one thing that brought me comfort. I knew I'd be OK. Now it seems like I'm being penalized for living too long. That's how I see it."

Clark now has Medicaid, which is a far cry from the high quality coverage he had before. His situation has re-ignited the debate regarding lifetime caps of insurance companies and rising medical costs. The recent ban on lifetime limits included in health care reform came into effect after Clark's policy was created, meaning that he doesn't benefit from the change.

Clark's right lung has serious damage, so he is constantly faced with pneumonia and ends up in the hospital several times per year. His mother has fallen behind on the bills as she tries to find ways to pay for his medical coverage. She has not even paid her property taxes for the last two years.

When Clark's policy came to an end, his insurance company, Health Special Risk, Inc., sent him a two-sentence letter stating: "the maximum medical benefit under this policy has been processed and no further benefits are available."

The case of Rocky Clark should give all of us a moment of pause as the black community strives to send more of our boys onto the football field than into the classroom. We cheer for these kids like heroes at every game, and then laugh it off when the child has grades that are clearly inadequate. What's saddest is that the average NFL athlete has a career span that is less than four years long, meaning that even for our kids who get a chance to live out "the dream," their dream eventually turns into a nightmare.
The recent suicide of former NFL star Dave Duerson, who is suspected to have suffered tremendous brain damage from years on the football field, is another example of things that can go wrong from pushing our kids into such a barbaric sport. Rocky Clark's battle with insurance companies leads us to also wonder whether it makes sense for us to allow capitalist motivations to guide our health care systems. Human life should not be managed with a price tag.
Two things that the Rocky Clark situation tells me are that:

a) If I ever have more kids, they will NOT play football. The risks are just too great, and I don't want to see my child lying in a hospital bed all day, unable to stand up and live life. There are other ways to enjoy sports without getting pounded in the head all day long.
b) All the effort our kids put into practicing and playing sports would be better spent pushing for academic achievement.

While most athletes end up broke and unemployed, Rocky's doctors will never be broke, and neither will the attorneys representing many of the black males who end up in the criminal justice system. We've got to find a way to get in on the profitable side of this terrible game of American capitalism. Right now we're feeding ourselves the short end of the stick.

Dr. Boyce Watkins on AOL Black VoicesDr. Boyce Watkins is a professor at Syracuse University and founder of the Your Black World Coalition.  To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.

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