Quadriplegic Chic Kelly just wants enough money to pay for his care (cont.)
In 1988, the NCAA offered a program to colleges that would allow the schools to fund insurance policies that would cover athletes who had suffered catastrophic injuries for $30,000 a year. Merrimack had such a policy in place at the time of his injury. Twenty-three years ago, that 30 grand was enough to pay for Kelly's 24-hour care.
Since then, home nursing costs have more than quadrupled. Realistically, Kelly has 35 more years to live, at best. The total he is requesting would be $2.4 million over the rest of his life.
Last year, the NCAA, a nonprofit organization, sold the rights to its annual basketball tournament, which provides 90 percent of its annual revenue, to CBS and Turner (which is part of Time Warner, the same parent company as SI.com) for $10.8 billion.
Last March, a 30-second commercial during the Final Four cost $1.3 million.
Ninety-five percent of the NCAA's revenue goes back to member schools. Those schools then use it to pay seven-figure salaries to coaches and build new arenas.
With the money the NCAA still has, the organization pays its administrative costs, and does its best to advance the noble cause -- for instance, flying 400 athletes to an all-expenses paid "Student-Leadership Forum."
The organization has no fund to help victims of catastrophic injury.
Four years ago, as the expenses of his nursing became prohibitive, Kelly asked Don DiJulia, the athletic director at St. Joseph's, if he could reach out to the NCAA and help see if it could bump up his annual care to $100,000. DiJulia forwarded a letter from Kelly to Keith Martin, the NCAA director of Finance and Operations. He included a DVD of Kelly, explaining his situation.
Martin wrote back to DiJulia and explained that the organization could not help because the current policy, in place since 1995, was not retroactive. Martin suggested that Kelly contact the insurance carrier. The insurance carrier said it could do nothing.
"It's a lot easier to say no to someone," Kelly says, "when they're not there in person."
Kelly next turned to an old family friend, Jay Wick. Kelly had caddied for Wick as a teenager at Gulph Mills golf course, where Wick was the assistant. Now the pro at Old Sandwich Golf Club on Cape Cod, Wick found an attorney to review the possibility of a case against the NCAA. The attorney advised him that the case was not strong. Kelly couldn't risk money he didn't have on a suit he wouldn't win.
"It's such an unbelievable injustice," Wick says. "Here you have one of the great role models ... the NCAA should be embracing Chic Kelly. This is someone who had this incredible misfortune and tough odds. Then he graduates, then he gets a masters, he teaches kids who love him -- it's nothing short of incredible for them to turn their back on Chic.
"In the end, if the NCAA powers meet Chic Kelly, and still don't do anything to improve his financial situation, then fine. But at least meet with Chic! If someone in the NCAA could just meet this kid ... I just don't believe that human beings in a position to help someone like this wouldn't do it."
Since then, both of Kelly's parents have lost their jobs. Money is tight. So Kelly recently emailed Martin again and received this response:
"The NCAA is in the same position today as we were in 2007 in that we do not have the authority or ability to retroactively change policy benefits regardless of who purchased the policy. ... This is true for the policies we purchased beginning in 1992 as well as the policies individual universities purchased before that time."
He again told Kelly to talk to the insurance carrier. The carrier again said there was nothing it could do about raising benefits
I contacted Gail Dent in the NCAA Public and Media Relations Office asking to speak to Martin about the case. A few days later, she responded by e-mail:
"I spoke with our staff and was told that we've been in communication with Mr. Kelly on a few occasions over the years ... [in] 1988 the NCAA had a voluntary program and the individual schools made the decision about the coverage they needed to have in place. The NCAA started paying the premiums in 1992, however, we cannot retroactively change the benefits under a policy ... I'm not sure there is any additional information the NCAA can provide for your story."
When I asked for clarification on the NCAA's relationship to the individual schools at the time, Dent responded: "We don't believe that the program that Merrimack was part of was mandatory. We made the program available to schools and they had the option to purchase it or not."
All Kelly knows is that he was participating in a hockey practice insured either mandatorily or voluntarily by the NCAA -- which, today, cannot apparently clarify which was the case -- when his mobile life effectively ended.
And as far as Kelly is concerned, all of the obfuscating semantics are beside the point: "It's like having a pool in your backyard," he says, "and not putting a fence around it and then claiming you're not responsible for someone drowning in it."
All Kelly needs to know is that the policy he was issued had "NCAA" on every page.
"But look: It's not like I'm bitter about the NCAA," he says. "I'm like, 'OK, if you could just fix it for me going forward, my life would be tremendous.'
"If I could just get the NCAA to say, 'Look, this is a special case ...' I mean, how many of us could there be? I'd bet you dollars to donuts it's less than five people. It might be one person who has a significant disability and needs physical assistance with almost every daily living activity: me.
"I'm asking for a drop in the bucket. To just make up the difference. To just pay for the nursing. I don't need a lump sum, like a million dollars. If they'd just put in the difference between the 30 grand they're giving me, and the 100 grand I need and deserve, and just put the 70 in an account for a nursing service, I'd be set.
"If the NCAA would just give me what's just and fair, I would have no problem paying for my adult independence."
The last time I visited Kelly's parents' house, the sun was high in the sky, and Chic's spirits were, of course, even higher -- even though his beloved St. Joe's basketball team had just finished its worst season in decades with a loss to Dayton.
The cause for the smile? He was writing his final exams, and for any teacher, no matter how much he loves to teach, when you're writing those finals, you know that summer freedom is just around the corner.
For Kelly, this means a lot of midweek Phillies games. "The Phillies have real good wheelchair seats," he says. And there won't be a lack of friends to accompany him: "They all say, 'Dude, bring that handicap parking thing!' He laughs. "You get rock-star parking."
As I say goodbye, I realize that, on this visit, I hardly paid attention to the wheelchair, and that we had spent more time talking about the Eagles and the Giants and the NFL lockout than we'd talked about his plight -- which is, at the end of the day, at the end of every day, how he wants it.
Because sports spawned this incredible, indomitable spirit, and then tried to swat it down.
He spins back to his computer, to watch some Phillies highlights, or Eagles previews, or Flyers highlights. It's funny, he'd told me: Some people ask him if he can stand to watch hockey now, when the truth is he can't get enough of it. Hell, sports is a big part of why Chic Kelly loves to get up every day.
Too bad he needs help to get out of that bed, and will, every morning, for the rest of his life. Too bad the people who won't pay for a nurse to lift him can't see what I see: the ideal of the athlete embodied by a man who refuses to lose.
To find out more about Chic Kelly, go to chickelly.com.
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