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When it comes to Jerry Kill's seizures, how much are we allowed to comment?

by Mike McFeely

Minnesota Gophers football coach Jerry Kill had an epileptic seizure on the sidelines of his team's victory over Western Illinois on Saturday. The seizure occurred while Kill was on the sidelines and was witnessed by more than 40,000 fans in attendance at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. The game was nationally televised by the Big Ten Network.

Minneapolis StarTribune columnist Jim Souhan wrote a column on Kill's seizure and the university's reaction to it Essentially Souhan wrote that the seizures diminish Kill's ability to do his job, and the coach should step down or be removed. Strong opinions, no question.

Wrote Souhan:

"His latest epileptic seizure, suffered on Saturday, evokes sympathy for him and his family. He appears to be a good man earnestly trying to elevate a woeful program while searching for ways to manage his disease.

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."

On a national sports web site, CBSSports.com, columnist Gregg Doyel wrote about Kill's seizures, too Doyel's take was that Kill can keep the job as long as he wants, but what happens if the coach dies on the sidelines during one of the seizures? Who assumes the risk for that?

Wrote Doyel:

"But make no mistake about this, too: Jerry Kill's epilepsy is a major concern -- and not just for Jerry Kill.

"There will be people, maybe even most people who read this story, who will fall back on the default position that Kill is a grown man; if he wants to risk dying on the sideline -- doing what he loves -- that's his choice.

"And you know what? In a vacuum, that's 100 percent correct. If Jerry Kill is OK with the risk to himself, who are any of us to tell him he's wrong? That's not our business.

"But this issue, and these seizures, aren't happening in a vacuum. They're happening on game day, often right there on the sideline. This is an issue that's bigger than Jerry Kill and the personal risks he's willing to assume. What about the risks everyone else assumes? What if he has a fatal seizure during a game, in full view of the stadium?

"That's our business."

Souhan's column has become a major story in and of itself in the Twin Cities area. He received several thousands e-mails on the column, many calling for his firing or resignation. The StarTribune editor, Nancy Barnes, wrote an apology to readers . Souhan also wrote a couple of blog posts in which he addressed the column and reader reaction to it.

While I thought Souhan's column took a couple of smart-aleck shots it didn't need to take, I wasn't offended by the gist of what was written. It is Jim's belief that Kill's seizures don't allow him to be the effective coach that is needed at the University of Minnesota. OK. That is his opinion, admittedly presented in a tough, take-no-prisoners way.

Whether I agree or disagree with Souhan's opinion (I happen to disagree, with many reservations), he has a right to express his opinion. That is a columnist's job. That is what Souhan does. Being popular in the court of public opinion is not part of his job description.

The bigger question for me is this: How far are we allowed to go in questioning somebody's fitness for a job based on their health?

I think it is perfectly legitimate to ask questions about Kill's health. I think it is OK to explore whether or not the coach can do his duties properly while managing epilepsy.

Maybe the answer is: It does not affect his job duty at all.

Maybe the answer is: It affects the way he does his job, but not enough to call for his resignation or firing.

Maybe the answer is: It affects his job so negatively that he must step down or be fired.

I don't know the answer. But the disturbing part of the reaction to Souhan's column was that so many people seemed to believe we shouldn't even address the question, that it is cruel to even ask if a person can perform his duties as a major-college football coach while having epilepsy.

I don't think that it is. I think it is perfectly fair to ask the question.

I also believe the editor of the StarTribune, Nancy Barnes, is the world's biggest wienie of an editor for folding like a cheap tent and apologizing for Souhan's opinion. How about standing behind your columnist, even if you disagree with his opinion?

(Mike McFeely is a talk-show host on KFGO-AM in Fargo, N.D. He can be reached at mike.mcfeely@mwcradio.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikeMcFeelyKFGO.)