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.

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