Jim Souhan Isn’t the Problem

NEW SLAUGHTERI don’t know Jim Souhan, the Star Tribune sports columnist who kinda stepped in it by saying that the University of Minnesota should, at the very least, keep epileptic seizure-prone football coach Jerry Kill out of public view. But I have some idea how he got himself into a predicament that unleashed a hailstorm of blowback.

But first, let’s be clear, risking and then taking a hammering in the court of public opinion is not always a bad thing. Often enough it is quite the opposite. If no one ever cares enough to complain about you or argue against your point of view you’re really just writing Chamber of Commerce ad copy … which, unfortunately, is what a lot of today’s news managers regard as responsible journalism. The irony with this incident is that Souhan, filing from the sports/entertainment department, over-exercised one of the last remaining licenses left to push an informed, personal point of view in regional newspapers. He over-played a license the Star Tribune and other papers have steadily hobbled in their metro and opinion pages.

Boiled to its essence, the criticism of Souhan is that his tone was cloddish, an affront to both epileptics and common decency. And it’s easy to see how readers got that impression.

Here are some of the problematic lines and why:

” … where the University of Minnesota’s football program, and by extension the entire school, became the subject of pity and ridicule.” (Is “ridicule” really the word you’re looking for here? “Ridiculed” by who? What sort of thoughtless yob sees any level of humor in an epileptic seizure? What percentage of even our local, get-a-life football fandom engages in that kind of “ridicule”?)

“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.” (Souhan’s working a context where Kill’s health issues are bad for the football program. But by elevating Kill’s winning percentage to the same level of concern as his health diminishes the appearance of concern for the latter. It’s what you call “playing too cute for your own good.”)

“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.” (College sports’ money issues are legendary and scandalous, even in a football wasteland like Minnesota. But again, mashing the two together — money and a man’s health — is callous, at best, and asking for trouble. Besides, as at least one commenter noted, fans pay top dollar every weekend with some expectation that they’ll see a 20 year-old kid carted off the field with shredded knee or worse.)

“Kill is unable to fulfill his duties.” (Really? I don’t think Souhan came close to proving that point. Or even trying.)

What I mean by the special license sports columnists have is this. They are writing for a heavily male audience that enjoys provocative writing reflective of a “man’s world”, i.e. a place where you call ’em as you see ’em, where lousy performance and incompetence are ridiculing offenses and where everyone’s tough enough to play again tomorrow after getting their feelings hurt. Look around the sportswriting landscape today. It’s one of the more talent-rich and compelling landscapes in the mainstream press because writers aren’t pulling punches, slathering their copy with consensus-conscious euphemisms and turning a blind eye to hypocrisy and incompetence. The contrast, as I say, with most papers’ metro and opinion columns is pretty damned stark.

But every provocateur risks going steps too far. It’s very much the nature of the broader media world today, outside stodgy daily newspapers. There’s career traction in upping the ante on “calling ’em, as you see ’em.” Hell, push it further and there might even be another paycheck in it, from sports radio, which is far less concerned with hurting feelings and sounding cloddish than mom and dad’s morning paper.

Souhan, who is still living in the shadow of Dan Barreiro, a guy who flexed a dagger with the best of them and has been well rewarded for it, simply “over-exploited” his provocateur license. It happens when you try to push itr “to the next level” to borrow a tired sports cliche. But there was no need to flex tough with an epileptic.

But my larger point here is the irony that Souhan style calling-out of sacred cows is now entirely the province of the sports department … where adults write about games.

The Star Tribune, which memorably prohibited its columnists from writing about the final stages of the presidential campaign in 2008, has taken a route much like every other regional, second-tier paper, avoiding partisan controversy by focusing on stories and themes with much higher levels of consensus. This, as I’ve said before, despite the presence of Michele Bachmann, and to a (slightly) lesser degree, Tim Pawlenty, people who should have been to any healthy “call ’em, as you see ’em” newspaper columnist what Les Steckel, Norm Green, Mike Lynn, Ron Davis and J. R. Rider have been to the sports department.

The fair question has always been, “Are you exercising journalistic responsibility by ignoring or grossly under-playing flagrant, unprecedented dysfunction and dishonesty by the highest-profile characters on your beat?”

It’s hard to get too upset over an outburst from the toy department, when the adults are hamstrung by their unwillingness to get seriously tough with people who actually matter.

35 thoughts on “Jim Souhan Isn’t the Problem

  1. Jeremy Powers says:

    How you get blanket rules that don’t allow columnists to say what they feel is when you get Jim Souhan saying something that callous. So the newspaper editor thinks: I don’t want callous. Jaded journalists are frequently callous. Therefore let’s not let them be journalists. There, I fixed it.

    1. But … because papers like the Strib survive in large part due to the popularity of their sports coverage … writers in that section have a dispensation, a “license” that others no longer have, because they might make a running joke out of an outrageously dishonest Congresswoman, a cynical careerist governor, a hapless party leader. Jaded is an occupational hazard. It plays better within its immediate bubble.

  2. Dennis Lang says:

    Very pleased you addressed this. Personally I was so pissed off by the apologetic response by Exec Editor Nancy Barnes of the “Strib” I looked up her email and wrote her basically accusing her and the paper of intellectual/journalistic cowardice in not defending the privilege of Mr. Souhan to state a very well-considered viewpoint. That the attentive reader failed to see the premise of the piece is in itself pathetic–but what can we expect?

    Jim Souhan was not only stating the obvious with no intent to diminish the courage of Mr. Kill– Mr. Kill himself already attested to fundamentally the identical issues some time earlier in an interview with one of Ms. Barnes’ own reporters. Sports writing may be the “toy department” but I totally agree that’s where often the most articulate and ballsy writers reside.

    1. Well, as I say Dennis, Souhan qualified his argument by noting his admiration for Kill and expressing concern for the effect these repeated seizures might have on his overall health but then sabotaged himself by playing crasser than he needed with the lines I mentioned. But you are correct, and I’m glad you sent Barnes (kind of a non-entity) a note defending Souhan. I like the court of public opinion. It’s a healthy thing. I’m sure Jerry Kill feels better seeing the response Souhan got, and I’ll bet Souhan, being a big boy, continues on just fine, marginally chastened by the episode.

      However, I suspect it’ll have a chilling effect on anyone vaguely considering a long look at Tom Emmer.

    2. bertram jr. says:

      Good going, DL! She deserves to be called out…

      Bertram much prefers to concern himself with REAL sport, not the bloated, false amateur, gambling-driven hoopla that is college football.

      That said, to witness the result of the stress the above places on a guy with a serious medical condition that limits other aspects of his having a ”normal’ life, is, well, disturbing to say the least.

      That the U of M, with it’s vaunted medical school / research reputation, would allow this spectacle to be a commonplace element of it’s gridiron program, begs many questions.

      The one Bertram wants answered is: if the goal for GopherNation is the RoseBowl, what the hell is gonna happen if Country Jer’ goes down on the national stage?

  3. Bruce Benidt says:

    http://cronkite.asu.edu/mcguireblog/

    Good stuff. Above is a link to McGuire on Media, by Tim McGuire, my and Souhan’s former editor (his is one of the blogs on our right-hand rail here as a blog we dig). Tim writes out of the ASU Cronkite School of Journalism, and makes a great distinction here between empathy and sympathy that would help in coverage of stories such as Kill’s..

    It’s often been said that politics should be covered the way sports is, with fewer holds barred. Keith Olbermann shows us that ego can take such an approach too far, but a more-rowdy coverage of everything would be better for us all, methinks.

    1. PM says:

      I think you are probably right that more “no holds barred” political coverage is appropriate, even if it means more Fox News, not less of it.

      But i still really dislike the Fox/Olberman approach, personally.

      1. It’s no surprise that I regard Olbermann as having a substantially higher regard for the truth than FoxNews, but I hear what you’re saying. And I’m really talking columnists, who are (allegedly) paid to express an opinion. A related flap at the moment is Chuck Todd’s complaint that certain people expect “the media” to “sell” Obamacare. I don’t know who those people are, but I know a lot of people who would appreciate it if journalists like Todd would stop letting any politician “message” on their shows and regularly step up and say, “Uh, that is not true” in the face of flagrant bullshit.

    2. I hope Tim is being honest with himself that he wouldn’t have spiked Souhan’s column. Obviously the current editors felt much the same way. (Although we may never know if they tried to talk him out of some the crasser phraseology). But I’d like to hear someone like Tim, no longer beholding to corporate masters, take on the questions that if Souhan–style commentary is fair for sports why isn’t the same style — aggressive, largely indifferent to consensus-thinking — appropriate for far — far — more relevant government matters? And to be honest, Tim would have to address the financial considerations at play in the conscious decision to bridle back metro and opinion writers.

  4. Dennis Lang says:

    In my mind Jerry Kill is deserving of more than mere admiration, he’s an inspiration for refusing to let an affliction determine his career and life. (Personally I’m capable of being immobilized by a bad hair day.)

    That’s one part of the story.

    The other part is that he’s the face of a major college athletic program at a public university at a salary of over $1 million annually, who because of his affliction requires removal by stretcher of games in progress. What should we make of this? Ignore it? Jim Souhan was direct. At base he no more than cited a reality. (Are all other observers in denial?) Would his sentiment have been better expressed if he soft-pedaled it? Or is it all the more forceful because he didn’t, while simultaneously assailing the Athletic Director for failing to immediately address the situation?

    With all that any of us may feel toward Mr. Kill—admiration, sympathy, empathy, a combination of all—if we had known assuredly that his seizures would manifest themselves in this way would he still have been the choice to lead the program? That’s not rhetorical. Perhaps it would be testimony to the heart and integrity of the university that he would, and any other decision would have been discriminatory.

  5. I agree with your take on the journalism side of things, Brian and Dennis. Some thoughts on the PR side of things:

    Just because Souhan overstated the case doesn’t mean that there are no epilepsy-related problems on the horizon for Kill and his football program. Souhan’s harsh tone and odd arguments generated so much pro-Kill PR among U officials and fans, it has made the status quo seem more benign than it is.

    As I’ve blogged, I want Kill to remain as coach. I like him, he seems effective so far, and I’d love to see a good and courageous man battling a tough disease succeed.

    But I think Kill needs to scale back his game-time role, because if he continues to have regular game-time seizures it will hurt the Gophers program. Those who think the status quo is fine are kidding themselves. As Kill himself said a while back:

    “You can’t be the head football coach and miss half of a game. I mean, I’m not stupid, I realize that.”

    If Kill isn’t able to manage the disease, he’ll miss more game time. It may not be fair that that matters, but it does matter.

    For the all-important recruiting game, the Gophers already are handicapped because of their historically losing ways. This issue adds more stability-related questions in recruits’ minds. We’d be naïve to deny that many of the things that Souhan said will be thought by 17-year old recruits and their influencers. That looms as a perhaps the programs’ biggest Kill-related problem.

    For overall image of the program, it does have an effect if a game or three per year get interrupted to attend to the Head Coach. If there are, say, four more episodes over the next four years, the accumulative PR effect of the seven on-camera medical melodramas will be felt.

    As I said, if both Coach Kill and Athletic Director Norwood Teague insist on preserving the status quo in the name of flipping off Mr. Souhan, and that preservation of the status quo leads to years of additional seizures, they will not have done any favors for either Kill, the players, Teague or the University.

    To say that you disagree with Mr. Souhan’s tone and timetable is not the same as accepting the status quo. I think they need to scale back Kill’s game-time duties, because if the rate of seizures can’t be controlled, that’s not good for Kill’s health or the program.

    1. Dennis Lang says:

      Yes, in catching KFAN’s interview with Jim Souhan yesterday he confirmed the ire raised seem to have far less to do with Jerry Kill’s status as football coach than with what was peceived as Jim’s gross insensitivity, even disparagement of those disabled. Clearly, not his intent at all and interesting that the substance of his viewpoint could evidently be so totally missed by so many. The piece did have a way of hitting the reader right between the eyes, agree or not. I rather thought that was a gutsy thing–and I’m supportive of Jerry Kill and his staff.

  6. PM says:

    I have to agree with both Dennis and Joe here–this is a problem, and it hurts the program and Kill both. I expect that there are solutions that would include keeping Kill in the Head Coach’s position, and I think that Kill and the U would be extremely foolish not to start to explore them. I see no reason why Kill couldn’t be in a scouting box during game time, for example.

    1. bertram jr. says:

      There is nothing to admire in a man who is seemingly willing risk dying over a minor league college football game / program. Or any college football game / program.

        1. Dennis Lang says:

          Yup—You guys (assuming you’re guys—in the online world of anonymity actual gender is never entirely clear) are both right. There is obviously no profession worthy of what is evidently Jerry Kill’s love of and devotion to coaching football. Unless maybe financial advisor, lobbyist or lawyer—just something with a big payday where morality, when necessary can be left at the door.

          1. PM says:

            but is it worth risking your health for in that fashion?

            Perhaps it is to him, now….

            I remember having a conversation with the father of a high school friend. He had been an All Pro middle linebacker in the NFL in the 1960’s. He told lots of stories about his colleagues who, many years later, were suffering from the injuries they had incurred, who were living hand to mouth because they had never saved and simply assumed that the money would always be there, etc.

            Bottom line is that football is an industry where a few make an awful lot of $$, the rest are hoping/expecting that they will be a part of those rich successful few, and almost all of them (participants, not owners) are usually incurring personal costs that they are completely unaware of at the time. Sure, there are people who love football and are devoted to it…so what? There are people who love and are devoted to professional wrestling, or their gun collections, and maybe even North Korea.

            There are a lot of people who will do a lot of things for $1,000,000.00/year. But the fact that they are getting that much $$ is no reason for anyone to admire them. I certainly don’t admire Donald trump, and he appears to get paid even more….

            I’d probably have more admiration for Kill and his devotion to football if he took a paycut and coached a Mpls highschool team. Might even do his health some good.

            1. Jim Leinfelder says:

              PM: I’m not tracking your line of sanctimonious reasoning here. What’s the connection between being a passionate college football coach and suffering epileptic seizures?

              I’m aware that some visual stimuli, such as strobe lights, can spark seizures. But I’m not aware that the stress of coaching football can. Neither is medical science, at least as far as I can tell from what’s been published. And, of course, neither are you and Bertram.

              I read that piece you linked to and it says that some epileptics are unable to control their surgery by means of either medication or surgery. Does Coach Kill skip taking his anti-seizure meds on game days? Or is he just one of the unlucky epileptics whose epilepsy is not easily controlled? Would they stop if he took up a line of work that met with your and Bertram’s approval, like, say, sales? Again, neither of you have the first clue.

              I’m aware that fat guys are at significantly higher risk for heart attacks, which can be an ugly thing for paying fans and beer commercial-watching home viewers to witness. Should we rid the sidelines of fat coaches to protect the delicate sensibilities of football fans?

              He’s not flying a jet or, hell, a city bus. He’s merely coaching football, an enterprise wherein people fling themselves at each other ever few minutes risking potentially wince-inducing injury.

              The guy’s 4-0, granted, in the cream puff portion of the schedule.

            2. PM says:

              Jim:

              In your eagerness to attack sanctimony wherever it raises its ugly head, you seem to have confused/conflated two separate discussions. I never made a connection between a passionate football coach and epileptic seizures.

              The part about the epileptic seizures started with Bertram noting that Kill is apparently “willing to risk dying” over football, and his saying that he found nothing admirable about that. I agreed with his point. Dennis countered by pointing out that Kill apparently has a love of and devotion to coaching football, and implied that coaching football is more worthy of admiration than being an attorney or a lobbyist or a financial advisor. I responded by going back to Bertram’s main point—that Kill is risking his life to do so. I cited an article which apparently you didn’t track very well, as you seem to have missed the main point (which was in the title) that the data suggests that the more seizures epileptics suffer, the greater the long term health risks for them. I cited that article to point out that Kill is apparently risking his health by continuing to place himself in situations where he could continue to have those seizures.

              In your reading of the “medical science…[t]hat’s been published” you apparently missed the website of the Epilepsy Foundation. And, yes, there is evidence that stress is indeed a contributing factor in seizures. “Stress is one of the most common seizure triggers for people with epilepsy”

              http://www.epilepsy.com/epilepsy/stress_and_epilepsy

              So we have a coach in a high stress situation who has had a number of seizures in those high stress situations and we know that stress is a very common trigger of epileptic seizures and this coach continues to place himself in that position……and continues to have seizures. And whatever he might be doing in the way of medication, etc., to control those seizures, it has clearly failed a number of times.

              But the passionate coaching references were not in relation to epilepsy, but rather to Kill’s position as a big time college football coach, and to my lack of admiration for him. I do not admire Kill. He may or may not be a good coach or a good husband or a good person, but I don’t admire him. He is doing a job for which he is being fabulously well paid. That is not particularly worthy of admiration, in my opinion. It is not what I consider to be a particularly admirable job. As a former college football player, I am quite familiar with the sport, and I do not admire what it has become. Personally, I think that college athletics (and football is probably the single worst sport) have become too much of a business, and should be divorced from the education of students. I mention it to explain why I do not admire Kill. I do not admire him because I generally do not think that big time college coaches who are paid more than university presidents/deans/professors are worthy of admiration. Rather I see Kill and other coaches in similar situations as a problem in our society that should be fixed.

              Whether he suffers from epilepsy or halitosis is irrelevant to the question of whether or not I admire him, and thus the issues of passion and epilepsy are not connected. As I mentioned earlier, I’d have more admiration for him if he followed his passion (coaching football) and cared for his health (lower stress levels) by accepting less pay and did more good by coaching at the high school level, where the game is still played largely for fun and the players are generally treated with more integrity by their coaches and the programs. Kill is part of that problem, and his epilepsy will not win him any sympathy from me.

            3. Jim Leinfelder says:

              The stress connection is highly speculative. What high-achieving adult isn’t subject to stress? Actually, you want stress, try being unsuccessful and poor. So, this bit about Kill being somehow self destructive because he’s bringing on his seizures is blaming the victim bunk. That’s Bertram’s territory. Disappointing to see you in his camp.

              I admire anyone coping with a disability as well as Kill does, no matter what they do.

            4. PM says:

              Hey, even a stopped clock is right twice a day….and when i think that Bertram is right (or Mike or Erik or anyone, including you) I’ll say so. I’m not a party line kind of guy.

              As for the stress connection being speculative, the Epilepsy Foundation doesn’t seem to think so. But console yourself however you wish…

            5. Jim Leinfelder says:

              You have no idea how stressful coaching is for Kill, or, how leaving a job he loves would stress him. This is just you and your fellow blue-nosed moralizer, Bertram, making sanctimonious decisions about somebody else’s life because his disability makes you uncomfortable.

          2. bertram jr. says:

            Well, Bertram is still flailing over the Stribs recent 4 color feature on the “genderfluid” designation.

            But, he assures you, he is 100% gender specific!

      1. Dennis Lang says:

        bertram jr–You are the greatest. Always love your comments. Well, here’s the deal, and you know it as well as I: It isn’t about football it’s about passion and the meaning Mr. Kill has found in his life–it’s about the determination to preserve it. You must have something in your life without which to you it would be considerably less, perhaps even without purpose. No? In your life maybe not as “insignificant” as football but to each his own and where we find meaning.

        That’s one of the aspects that makes this subject so interesting, at least to me–from the journalistic perspective and a humanistic one.

      2. Jim Leinfelder says:

        Well, I’m not the expert on epilepsy all you chaps seem to be. But it’s my understanding that we have around 60,000 good folks here in MN with epilepsy who quietly go about their lives working jobs and raising families and maybe taking in a perennially moribund Big Ten college football program’s game without feeling a duty to stay well out of public view so as not to risk offending the delicate sensibilities of sports columnists and bloggers and the rest of us non-epilepsy sufferers.

        It’s my guess that if any of you brave defenders of Jim Souhan had a child with epilepsy whose future you stayed up nights anxiously imagining, you’d be discussing the propriety of Coach Kill’s occasional episode out of a nobler orifice.

        I vividly remember standing in line at the Portland Public Library to check out a few books when the woman standing in front of me suddenly stiffened and fell back into me. I dropped my books, eased her to the hard marble floor and kept her from injuring herself against it as an epileptic storm passed through her brain. She bit her tongue, or maybe the inside of her cheek, a bit, but not seriously. As she returned to her self, she seemed to be suffering nothing more serious than some embarrassment and just wanted to leave the area as quickly as she could. But to a person, and not knowing much about living with epilepsy, all the people in line were kind and assuring to her and pleaded with her to lie still until she could be looked after by paramedics.

        I don’t recall anyone acting put out that the decorum of the check out process had been disrupted by this woman’s seizure, or judging this woman for “risking her life” for something as trivial as checking out something to read at the library.

        At Holy Spirit Grade School, the good Sisters of St. Joseph taught us to never to mock the afflicted, always bearing in mind that the soundness of our bodies and minds were gifts, for which we’d done absolutely nothing to deserve. And that those with less sound bodies and minds had equally done nothing to deserve their circumstances. Further, we were told to feel no pride in our powers, just humility, gratitude and a sense of duty to put them to good use on behalf of those with less.

        So, I’ll ask you to forgive me for not caring quite so deeply about Mr. Souhan’s precious column inches or the sanctity of a Big Ten college football game’s pageantry versus accommodating a man who, by all accounts, is simply going about his job competently and without self pity with comparatively good results. It’s my impression that his team, coaching staff and the people who hired him are rallying around him and supporting him. We’d all do well to do the same.

        And if it costs us some out-of-sate players who don’t want to be associated with such a humane program, I’d say we’d do well to avoid them.

  7. bertram jr. says:

    Bertram would like to nominate Jimmy to be Kill’s personal fall-breaker / man-attendant.

    He’d look great in a vintage M letterman sweater, a pair of chinos and maybe a fedora, and could bring a sort of ‘old timer’ charm to the sideline on gameday.

    What say, Jimmy?

  8. bertram jr. says:

    Seems at the end of every liberal’s ‘position’ is that cloying mix of “I’m superior to you / “I’m so caring”.

  9. bertram jr. says:

    Hey, put some collars on them, while you’re at it.

    And give them names. It just wouldn’t do that they don’t have a name!

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