McGuire on Media

Jerry Kill’s story should inspire us to search for empathy in disability coverage

For days I have had another topic in mind for this blog post. It was a topic that would not have me fly so close to my former newspaper, The Minneapolis Star Tribune and to many employees I consider friends.

Yet, as I have gone about some other tasks today I can’t get past the controversy over a sports column Jim Souhan wrote. The vitriol has flowed because Souhan wrote on the cover of the Star Tribune’s Sunday Sports section that Kill’s fourth epileptic seizure during a game means he should not be allowed to continue as University of Minnesota football coach.

Souhan’s opinion is not a radical one. Gregg Doyel , a columnist for CBS sports made essentially the same point in this post. Sports Illustrated Monday Morning Quarterback columnist,, Peter King wrote “I don’t want to be insensitive. I’d really like to know if it makes sense to keep him (Jerry Kill) on as coach. 

Despite those similar opinions the community blowback at Souhan has been so staggering he apologized on Monday afternoon. The outstanding Star Tribune editor, Nancy Barnes, apologized. too. 

When I read it Sunday morning I vehemently disagreed with Jim’s column (I was editor when Jim was hired as a football writer years ago.) I hate second guessing but had I been in the decision-making process I think I would have tried to talk him down and tone him down but I don’t believe I would have killed the column. I usually believe the light is better than the dark. I think the public debate engendered by this column is already leading to good things, despite the anger. 

Even though I personally disagree with it, Souhan’s point was legitimate and should be grounds for reasonable debate. Whether it deserved the controversy it drew is for someone else to judge. What the column lacked was a recognition that epilepsy is a disability that deserves analysis and perspective. The Star Tribune brilliantly offered that perspective in a wonderful, in-depth dive into Kill’s epilepsy on Aug. 11 by Joe Christiansen. 

That piece deserved public accolades because of it’s depth, understanding and most importantly its empathy.  

Souhan wrote in his FAQ about the controversy,  “Yes, I am sympathetic to Kill.”I believe Jim, who is a good and thoughtful guy, would have gotten to a much different place in his column had he shown empathy rather than sympathy.

My perspective is that of a man born with a crippling congenital condition and then  30 years later finding out he was the father of a Down syndrome child. I don’t know of a single disabled person who wants sympathy. Many people with disabilities rage and storm against sympathy. Would they like someone to try to walk in their shoes? You bet.

For me, sympathy allows you to feel sorry for someone. Empathy allows you to appreciate the other person’s situation and feel their feelings. Empathy for a person struggling with limitations allows us to focus on the whole person including their triumphs and not just their failures and struggles.

I am currently judging a major contest for the National Center for Disability Journalism based here at Arizona State University.  I am also on the board of advisors.

The best entries in this contest understand the difference between sympathy and empathy. They focus on the entire person. Like every man, people with disabilities handle many situations well and other challenges are like insurmountable mountains. Every human being shares that experience.

Jerry Kill seems to be a competent coach. He has not really turned around the Gopher football program yet, but there are promising signs.  He obviously does some things very well. His seizures during games have overshadowed those good qualities for many.

When journalists cover disabilities  they need to leave sympathy at the door. Good journalism demands we avoid categorizing and pre-conceived notions. That’s just as important in government and business coverage as it is in covering disabilities. We need to consider the whole picture of a human being and report that honestly.

One of the most fascinating pieces in the contest I am judging is a New York Times magazine piece about a man who has started a company that focuses on the very valuable things autistic people can do for certain companies. By focusing on the strengths of people many have abandoned, the man has built a successful business.

If examining all the strengths and all the limitations of a person with a disability leads us to a conclusion that people with certain disabilities can’t do certain jobs, so be it.  But let’s come to that conclusion as thorough journalists after empathetically evaluating the complete person and all  the value they bring to particular tasks.

One Comment

  1. phil schmid
    Posted September 18, 2013 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    While I will strongly defend Jim Souhan’s and the Strib’s right to publish his opinion, I am greatly troubled by the tone of the message and his subsequent half-baked apology. This is a case where Jim has forgotten that he has a responsibility to the paper, it’s readership, the community at large and children who look up to players, coaches and members of the media. He missed an opportunity to create a deeper understanding of epilepsy, Jerry Kill and his struggles. Instead he reinforced a still pervasive ignorance about a condition that is not altogether uncommon. Yes, the discussion is a positive, but again, he has reinforced antiquated and damaging attitudes about those with epilepsy and other disabilities. Additionally, his tone has given the lowest common denominator license to continue with language and behavior that is damaging to those with disabilities. I have never weighed in as a fan of Coach Kill, but I believe the positives he has brought the U’s football team probably far outweigh the negatives by showing players, students, parents, kids and fans what it is to truly persevere, to truly give 100 percent in life. There is no quantifiable way to measure how his condition affects the team’s record thus far, and it is quite possible that Kill’s long-time coaching staff is interchangeable to some extent because of his condition – meaning he can afford to miss a game without affecting it’s outcome. This is certainly an angle that Souhan could pursue if he intends to redeem himself. Having listened to and read Souhan for years, the one observation I have about his presence in the local media is that he has become far more insensitive to his role as columnist. The I’m-used-to-the-criticism take he has expounded on in the past does not apply to this column. He has permanently damaged his reputation. The paper will recover as it bent over backward yesterday in apologizing and dedicating so much editorial space to Coach Kill, his condition and epilepsy in general. Souhan thus far has only been defiant. I can only assume he was forced to apologize or face consequences. His presence with the paper is a liability, in my estimation, not because of this opinion, but because of the lack of sensitivity, thoughtfulness and common decency. In the wake of the column, he has yet to address just how mean-spirited some of his words were. And he has not owned up to addressing his obvious ignorance of the subject matter. He has damaged his reputation as a columnist and member of the community. If I were in a position of authority, I would begin looking back into his somewhat checkered StarTribune history to determine if should continue as a columnist.

    Thank you.

    Phil Schmid, St Paul, MN
    (651) 500-7818