Posted by Gary Schwitzer in General journalism issues
If you don’t live in Minnesota and you don’t follow college football, you may not have heard about this continuing controversy.
University of Minnesota football coach Jerry Kill has had several epileptic seizures on the sidelines during games in recent years. He had his third in three years last weekend.
The coach declined to discuss his health at a news conference yesterday.
But the day after the coach’s latest sideline seizure, a firestorm was ignited when Star Tribune sports columnist Jim Souhan wrote:
“How can a school continue to employ a football coach who has had four seizures during or after the 16 home games he has coached at the school, along with an unknown number of seizures away from the public eye?…
Kill suffers a seizure on game day as the coach of the Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium exactly as often as he wins a Big Ten game. He’s 4-for-16 in both categories….
Even those who admire him most can’t believe that he should keep coaching major college football after his latest episode. Either the stress of the job is further damaging his health, or his health was in such disrepair that he shouldn’t have been hired to coach in the Big Ten in the first place.
The face of your program can’t belong to someone who may be rushed to the hospital at any moment of any game, or practice, or news conference. No one who buys a ticket to TCF Bank Stadium should be rewarded with the sight of a middle-aged man writhing on the ground. This is not how you compete for sought-after players and entertainment dollars.”
Subsequently, Souhan wrote that he’d received “what seems like a thousand emails and messages” disagreeing with his opinion. He wrote that it was not his intent to be insensitive to the coach’s condition or to other people with disabilities, but that his opinion on the matter remains the same.
Then yesterday, three University of Minnesota leaders – the dean of the School of Public Health*, the dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and the school’s VP for Equity and Diversity – wrote on Minnpost.com when they could not get published in the Star Tribune: “Souhan’s column on Jerry Kill was ill-informed, dishonorable, and just plain nasty.” Excerpt:
“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.”
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.”
This would be a terrific time for Twin Cities news organizations to do a big project explaining some of the myths and misunderstandings about epilepsy. I acknowledge that I can’t see everything, but in my limited sweep, I haven’t seen that kind of journalistic effort. If any readers have seen something noteworthy, I’d appreciate a note about it.
* Disclosure: I’ve recently been named to an Adjunct Associate Professor appointment in the Dean’s office of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. No one there had anything to do with my decision to write about this.
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