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Accidents happen: Extra insurance covers many high school athletes

In the blink of an eye, a high school football player can suffer a severe concussion or a cheerleader can suffer a broken leg. Given the dangers of high school athletics, football players, cheerleaders and other athletes pay a lot of attention to safety. And many of their parents pay for supplemental insurance as a safeguard.

Each year, more than 7 million high school students participate in athletic events, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Of those students, more than 5 million have accidental injury insurance policies to cover muscle pulls, broken bones and even paralysis or death.

Typically, state athletic associations require their member schools or school districts to offer a minimum amount of insurance coverage for each student participating in extracurricular activities. This coverage usually is paid for by a student's parents, although some districts help with the costs. A student who's on his or her parents' health insurance policy normally isn't required to be covered by supplemental accident insurance.

The annual premiums for this supplemental coverage range from $100 for most sports up to about $300 for football. The cheap premiums usually yield low payouts. For instance, the Student Insurance Agency, which sells accident insurance for high school athletes in California, charges $305 a year for a football player and pays out, among other things, $10,000 for “loss of life” and $20,000 for “loss of both hands or both feet.”

Not surprisingly, football has the most competitors and carries the most danger among high school sports.

More than 1 million students across the country compete in football, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. From 1982 to 2010, there were 771 catastrophic injuries in fall sports at high schools. Ninety-seven percent of the fall-sports injuries were among football players, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Injury Research, a University of North Carolina think tank affiliated with the federation. These figures don't include heat-related illnesses or deaths.

“Deaths from practicing in the heat, catastrophic injuries – you see a lot of things that cause premiums to go up – if only slightly – and not just in Florida,” says Seth Polansky, a spokesman for the Florida High School Athletic Association, which manages extracurricular activities for about 800 schools.

Other dangerous sports include track and field, where there were 74 fatal or near-fatal injuries among high school athletes from 1982 to 2010. This includes 43 catastrophic injuries from pole vaulting, and 25 catastrophic injuries from participants being struck by a thrown discus, shot put or javelin.

Cheerleading also is a relatively dangerous sport, according to the injury research center. Of the 3.2 million female high school athletes in 2009-2010, there were 123,644 cheerleaders (4 percent). Yet, the research center says, cheerleading accounted for two-thirds of all female catastrophic injuries from 1982 to 2010.

“With cheerleading, it is not as much frequency (of injuries) as it is severity, but you still see the most injuries with football and soccer,” says Tom Lenihan, president of Health Special Risk Inc., which underwrites accident insurance for students in more than 1,000 U.S. school districts.

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