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

Jim 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.

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.

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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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