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Souhan’s column on Jerry Kill was ill-informed, dishonorable, and just plain nasty

Shame on you, Jim Souhan.

Souhan’s commentary, “In category of health, Kill falls too short to continue” (Star Tribune, Sept. 15), questioned how the University of Minnesota could continue to employ football Head Coach Jerry Kill after the seizures he has suffered, and complained that no ticket-buyer “should be rewarded with the sight of a middle-aged man writhing on the ground.”

(Because readers of MinnPost may wonder why we are not directing our reaction to the Star Tribune’s opinion page, we note that we initially submitted this piece to the Star Tribune.  As we understand it, the Star Tribune had many submissions from which to choose on the Souhan commentary and passed on ours, so we welcome the chance to offer our views on this important issue in MinnPost. )

Souhan’s commentary was so bad that we just don’t know where to begin. It was ill-informed; it was chock full of unsupported assertions; it was dishonorable, and it was just plain nasty. In sum, Souhan made an unreasonable and biased judgment about the impact of Jerry Kill’s disability. This bias is deeply troubling, as it encourages misconceptions about epilepsy and demoralizes people with the disease.

Souhan, whose medical degree is not apparent on the Star Tribune website, asserts that “either the stress of the job is further damaging [Kill’s] health, or his health was in such disrepair that he shouldn’t have been hired” initially. Shedding crocodile tears, he goes on to note that “Kill’s case is sad,” but he’s taken on a job “that his system can no longer handle.” 

Not qualified to render judgment

Of course, Souhan is not qualified to render this judgment. If we were Coach Kill, we might ask for a second opinion from a real doctor. We might also ask Jim Souhan whether he cares that his assertions promote misconceptions about what people with epilepsy can or cannot do.

Souhan might respond that big-time college football is special, and the simple recurrence of seizures creates too many obstacles for success in the Big Ten. He laments that as a result of Coach Kill’s seizures, the football program and the university “became the subject of pity and ridicule,” which he also asserts will damage the university’s capacity to recruit athletes and attract entertainment dollars.

This is nonsense, unless you are intent on stigmatizing persons with disabilities, rather than celebrating their capacity to achieve and succeed. Moreover, at an institution of higher learning, which the University of Minnesota happens to be, isn’t that exactly what we should be doing?

Former major leaguer Jim Abbott was born with no right hand, but he didn’t do too badly with his left arm and hand. His ability to succeed with his disability was a source of inspiration for the four Major League Baseball teams for which he played, and for millions of fans. Atlanta Falcons running back Jason Snelling, a spokesperson for the Epilepsy Foundation who also lives with the disease, had the game-clinching touchdown against the St. Louis Rams this past Sunday.  His capacity to achieve is inspiring.

Obviously, nobody is expecting Jerry Kill to run for a touchdown against San Jose State next week. But the notion that a disease like epilepsy – including the seizures that result from the disease – should be a source of embarrassment is a self-fulfilling prophecy that encourages fear and discrimination. In fact, the capacity of our leaders – in sports, entertainment, government and industry – to succeed in the face of disability can be a source of pride.

Win record never addressed

So does Jerry Kill’s disability insulate him completely from harsh judgment? Of course not.  We’re not in the Department of Athletics at the U, but we suspect Coach Kill’s job security over time will be tied to whether his team is playing better and winning more football games under his leadership. Remarkably, those questions were never really addressed in the commentary. Instead, we were treated to a range of unsupported and mischievous judgments about how our coach’s seizures make us a laughingstock, and therefore undermine our efforts to build a strong football program. 

What rubbish. The skills and dedication that Jim Abbott and Jason Snelling brought to their fields of endeavor enabled them to succeed despite their disabilities, and have been a source of inspiration for millions. We don’t know the details of Jerry Kill’s medical situation, or his prognosis, and we don’t need to know. What we do know is that, notwithstanding his own disability, Jerry Kill brought to Minnesota an exceptional record of achievement. There is no reason to assume that additional seizures, should they occur, will prevent him from succeeding here as well.

Eric P. Schwartz is dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. John R. Finnegan is dean of the University’s School of Public Health.  Katrice Albert is the university’s Vice President for Equity and Diversity.

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If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at salbright@minnpost.com.)

Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by Jon Roeder on 09/17/2013 - 10:29 am.

    Souhan

    He should be fired. How the editors ever let that piece get printed is beyond understanding!

    • Submitted by David Greene on 09/18/2013 - 02:50 pm.

      Editors

      Given that the same issue had a staff-written editorial that called poor people “welfare mothers” and “low lifes,” it’s not that surprising.

  2. Submitted by Kurt Nelson on 09/17/2013 - 10:32 am.

    Wrong analogy

    To use the analogy that Jim Abbot’s condition is the same as coach Kill’s is not quite right. Abbot was able to perform at a high level, and the fact he had one arm did not prevent him from being on the field for an entire game. Coach Kill has a disease that keeps him off the field, and yet he continue to take his very large salary, even though he misses a bunch of time due to his condition. He is a fine leader, and inspiring, but he is not able to perform at his highest level (if he were, he would not spend so much time prone in the hospital).
    How many more games will he miss because of his disease? and why would he continue to be paid for that time. This is not about a singular disease, but about the ability to perform his job, at the highest level. Would the authors make the same apology if he came to the field drunk (alcoholism is a disease too), most likely not.

    As a Gopher, I want our team to win, but coach Kill is the wrong guy for the job.

    • Submitted by richard owens on 09/17/2013 - 11:55 am.

      Is epilepsy a “disease?” (Are migraines a “disease?”)

      I don’t think so. It is probably fair to say this is not a “firing offense”.

      Either way, the other coaches acted as a team, picked up the slack and the Gophers were well-coached in his absence.

      Some folks would say good management shows in a good performance WITHOUT the top manager present.

      Employment law is more than an inconvenience.

    • Submitted by John Ellenbecker on 09/17/2013 - 12:36 pm.

      Coach Kill demonstrated success on Saturday

      What is being ignored is that Coach Kill demonstrated on Saturday his SUCCESS as a head coach. He put a plan in place in case of a seizure and his coaches and players followed that plan which lead to a victory. That is his job as the head coach. He also had a plan in place in case his starting quarterback was not available to play – that plan also had to be implemented on Saturday and again resulted in a win. This notion that Kill somehow failed in his capacity as head coach on Saturday is absurd.

    • Submitted by Chris Nerlien on 09/17/2013 - 12:43 pm.

      Wrong reasoning.

      The job of a football coach is not simply calling plays on the sidelines every Saturday. Most of the work of any football coach is before the game; creating gameplans, recruiting players, training and conditioning current players, etc.

      Coach Kill has now left 3 games in 3 years due to seizures. Let’s call them sick days, because even Jim Abbot had those. The article is correct in that we should leave Coach Kill’s condition aside and judge him for the performance of the team he was hired to coach.

    • Submitted by Adam Miller on 09/17/2013 - 02:34 pm.

      game day is a tiny portion of his job

      His job is to get results. He’s getting them. His team is among the most academically successful we’ve ever had and they’ve shown improvement on the field every year too.

      He gets paid for the 365 days a year when he’s building a program, recruiting, teaching and leading young men. That he misses part of a game every once in awhile should only be an issue if the job isn’t getting done. So far, it is.

    • Submitted by pam shipley on 09/19/2013 - 04:18 pm.

      Your analogy to compare alcoholism to epilepsy sickens me

      The whole talking about if someone can do their job when it has been proven is why I looked up articles then when I read that you compare people with epilepsy to alcoholics really made me mad. I have a child that started having seizures at the age of 3 . He did nothing to cause this condition. Alcoholics drink and drink to cause their problem. I hope that you never have a child or grandchild that has a condition that can strike at any time without warning. My son has seizure when right after he goes to sleep or right when he is waking up . Every night and morning I wonder if this is the day he will have a seizure. He has went as long as a year and you think you can almost forgot about it and then it strikes. Like I said I hope and pray you never have anyone that you love have a seizure and have to think back on what you compared them too.

  3. Submitted by Ray Marshall on 09/17/2013 - 11:48 am.

    Souhan on Coach Kill

    I don’t follow the Gophers or Souhan very closely. I’m only vaguely aware that Coach Kill has had some medical problems. I didn’t know until reading this article that he apparently has epilepsy.

    But what I do find interesting is that after slamming Souhan for not being a doctor and daring to have a medical opinion, the article was signed by three non-doctors, including the head of the U’s “Diversity Department.”

    • Submitted by Patrick Phenow on 09/17/2013 - 01:48 pm.

      They don’t attempt to be doctors

      The difference is that those three have the wisdom to leave the diagnosis to Kill’s doctor’s, not attempt to make it themselves.

  4. Submitted by Richad Hahn on 09/17/2013 - 11:52 am.

    Souhan

    Mr. Souhan’s lack of journalist bearing indicates ignorance and borderline bigotry. A public apology to Mr. Kill should be expected.

  5. Submitted by Laurel Reeves on 09/17/2013 - 12:03 pm.

    priorities

    According to Souhan’s logic, no ticket-buyer “should be rewarded with the sight of a middle-aged man writhing on the ground”, but it is apparently okay to be rewarded with the sight of a unpaid, healthy, young man writhing on the ground from a possibly life changing injury so that Souhan can be entertained by football.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 09/17/2013 - 02:08 pm.

      Nailed it nicely, thank you !!

      But if Mr. Souhan wraps his mind fully around this internal contradiction, he may have to look in the mirror for a while.

      Have you noticed how the play-by-play announcers love to revisit those “big hits” on replay, over and over ? These help sell soap on TV and beer at the stadium, as the fans get excited watching injuries happen.

      But Souhan’s right. Those same fans don’t get the same thrill when a coach is on the ground with a health issue. But then Souhan’s odd logic surmises: they have somehow been short-changed.

      The disabled tend to be amongst the world’s leading authorities on their disability – what they can’t do, but ESPECIALLY, what they CAN do.

      I’m pretty confident Mr. Kill is well qualified for his job, and that if he becomes unable to do a high quality job, he’ll be the first to know and withdraw from his position accordingly.

      In the meantime, let’s not forget he came into a program which has had big problems for MANY YEARS, and he deserves to have the fans and the media reel out a little rope to him. Rectifying a big mess takes time.

      Lastly, could we respond with a little more understanding, even support ?

      I’m a college wrestling fan, and a couple years ago, a 125 pounder who was MISSING A LOWER LEG wrestled to the finals of the NCAA tournament, convincingly beating all comers, including the defending champion in the finals. I wonder how many people questioned his fitness to wrestle competitively in those years before he became a champion ? I think Coach Kill is facing a real challenge, a similar challenge – RIGHT NOW – because of the ignorance of people like Mr. Souhan.

  6. Submitted by Amy Farland on 09/17/2013 - 12:32 pm.

    Jerry Kill makes an excellent role model. Jim Souhan, not so much.

  7. Submitted by John Ellenbecker on 09/17/2013 - 01:02 pm.

    Souhan illustrated the ignorant stigma associated with epilepsy

    Souhan has made clear that he shouldn’t have to be witness to “public seizures” (as he referred to them today). It is that ignorant stigma that he applies to those with epilepsy that has condemned them to thousands of years of discrimination. “Public seizures” do not disqualify anyone from coaching football. Ignorance should disqualify Jim Souhan from writing on the subject matter of seizures and epilepsy. Hopefully education and a lot more maturity will allow Jim Souhan to be more comfortable with those who experience “public seizures” because neither epilepsy nor “public seizures” condemn anyone to a life outside of public view.

  8. Submitted by Sean Olsen on 09/17/2013 - 01:46 pm.

    The fact that Coach Kill has suffered three seizures during games is a legitimate issue to be discussed. Souhan’s column was not how said issue should be discussed, however.

    • Submitted by Hugh Gitlin on 09/17/2013 - 05:44 pm.

      Why Souhan, not Doyel or Mackey

      Greg Doyel from CBS and Phil Mackey from 1500-ESPN both wrote columns questioning if Kill should stay on as coach. The big difference is that Doyel & Mackey were respectful, not insulting, of Kill’s condition

      • Submitted by Jackson Cage on 09/18/2013 - 07:55 am.

        Nailed it Hugh

        Thanks for being the only one capable of distinguishing the difference. Sorry, but the sad reality of life is there are certain careers that arent made for people with this disability. Could Kill be a fighter pilot, for example? It’s become a question of whether Kill can get this under control to the point where it doesn’t adversely effect him and the U football program.

        And to those who simply think it’s just football and that his performance should be judged on how his team performs on Saturdays, your niavete is almost laughable. Disgusting as it may be, college football is a Big Time Business and Kill’s health weighs in on more than games. This is a big revenue business, not a social service non-profit.

        • Submitted by Emily Maggard on 09/18/2013 - 07:20 pm.

          Straw man

          There are rules for these thing, by law. There are also multiple different types of epilepsy- nocturnal, absent, tonic colonic, etc. In short, yes, Kill could be a fighter pilot if he had nocturnal epilepsy and was medicated. Also, he is salary paid to perform a job and he missed 3 games (4?) in 3 years due to seizures. How is that seriously impeding job performance? According to ADA he must be unable to perform the job- I’m not seeing that at all. He has properly trained his staff, has implemented succession planning, has 3-0 record, and things went well while he was off field. You know, a coach does a lot more than sideline work.
          A lot of athletes, particularly in football, will leave the field at the end of their career with epilepsy due to injuries to the head. Additionally, 1:100 people have epilepsy. 1:26 will have a seizure in their lifetime. It’s not this secret evil thing that turns people into in functioning drool monsters. I’ve had it since I was 12, and I’m 30, have a degree, taught young children, and have way more episode than this guy. The people who are anti-Kill still sound like school yard bullies to me, who are just out to get something different. Lucky for Kill, sports teams are like families, and I’m sure he’s got the support of his team.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/18/2013 - 10:29 am.

    WCCO radio?

    It sounded to me like WCCO was also banging the drums of Kills resignation the other day. This reminds us that the whole phenomena of ill mannered shock jocks began with sports shows back in the 80s. The idea that sports commentary and analysis of all things should lie outside common standards of decency never made sense.

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