Last weekend, Jerry Kill, head coach of the University of Minnesota's football team, had an epileptic seizure during a game -- not for the first time.
Since then, some people in the media and the general public have been calling for Kill to be fired. One of the most crass statements made in the press was by Jim Souhan of the Minnesota Star-Tribune who wrote that nobody who buys a ticket to a University of Minnesota football game "should be rewarded with the sight of a middle-aged man writhing on the ground." Although some people support Souhan, many people have criticized him, and the university stands by Coach Kill.
Nevertheless, as an epileptic, a journalist, a sports fan, and a former collegiate athlete myself, I am dismayed, to say the least. Seizures are a terrifying thing to witness, so I understand that people's immediate, instinctual reaction is to be frightened, be uncomfortable, and wish for a person with a seizure disorder to be shut away where you don't have to look at them. However, hiring and firing decisions cannot be immediate and instinctual; they must be intelligent and informed. Fortunately, the university has stood by their coach.
But this isn't just about football. What if this were a CIO? True, most CIOs aren't quite as high-profile as a college football coach, but they're no shrinking violets -- they may have to speak at live events like conferences, board meetings, and E2 radio and video shows. Would a company decide that someone with epilepsy cannot be a CIO? What about other executives?
This isn't just about epilepsy. There are other diseases and disorders that could cause a person to exhibit abnormal behavior. Our executive editor Curt Franklin gave me a perfect example. Years ago, during a meeting with representatives from another company, one of the gentlemen from that company began to say and do very peculiar things, including tying a tie around his head and spinning around in his swivel chair. Fortunately, two of the people on Curt's team had diabetes and recognized the behavior as an indication of dangerously low blood sugar. They acted fast and saved the man from what could have become a much worse medical emergency.
True, this gentleman's medical emergency caused a brief disruption in the business meeting, and Coach Kill's seizure caused a brief disruption in the game. However, these people were not working all alone. There were other coaches on the sidelines to calls plays and manage the game while Kill recovered. And there are other people on an executive team and an IT department who could temporarily fill in for the CIO.
Or could they? Must every CIO have public appearances be part of their job description or is that something that can be delegated to someone else, like a deputy CIO or IT director? Can CIOs make sure that someone on their staff is present and thoroughly prepared to take over a conversation in the event that the CIO is temporarily rendered unable to speak? Or is that an ineffective use of the staff member's time? Is greater teamwork a good way or a bad way to manage this problem?
Do we need to hold executives and other people who may serve as a public face for their organization to different health standards, especially when it comes to health problems that cause visible effects that make a person look different or unwell, even if they're physically capable of doing their job?
Well, hardly anyone is more visible than people who appear daily on national television. Yet when Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts got cancer, she left the show during her chemotherapy treatment but returned to national television before her hair had grown back in. When national sports commentator Ernie Johnson, Jr. got lymphoma years ago and had a very visible tumor, some viewers complained that it was difficult to look at Johnson, but Turner Broadcasting kept him on air anyway, until Johnson took a temporary leave to begin debilitating chemotherapy treatment.
By standing by their high-profile employees, these organizations create a "teaching moment" for the general public. Yesterday, Outside the Lines, a program on national sports network ESPN, did a fair and intelligent feature on epilepsy in sports. The feature has been applauded by many epilepsy awareness organizations (and by me) who hope that this dialogue will increase the public understanding of a widely misunderstood disorder. It was not long ago that epileptics were shut away in asylums, unable to work, even unable to wed -- I want to believe that those days are over.
It was, no doubt, difficult for Coach Kill to have a seizure and then answer a thousand questions about it. It was no doubt difficult for Ernie Johnson, Jr. to watch his life-threatening tumor grow on national television. It would no doubt be embarrassing for me to have a seizure in front of my co-workers or during a live E2 video show. It was, no doubt, embarrassing for the diabetic man in Curt's meeting... and shocking for his own co-workers, who knew nothing about his condition.
That raises another concern -- although people do have a right to their privacy, do they have a responsibility to tell their company when they have a health problem that could occasionally disrupt their work? What about shareholders? Google CEO Larry Page suffered from vocal chord paralysis that robbed him partially of his ability to speak and kept it hidden for some time before revealing it.
My co-workers know about my epilepsy and I told them how to respond in the uncommon event that I have a seizure in front of them. However, I confess that I did not share this information until months after I began the job. Was it irresponsible for me to wait that long?
My company has made life easier for me by allowing me to work from home (as all of the E2 editors do). They have allowed me to wear wigs on camera (since I lost my hair for unrelated reasons). They provide me the same number of paid sick days and temporary paid disability that all company employees are given.
Have they been too accommodating? Is the University of Minnesota being too accommodating? What kind of accommodations are reasonable for a CIO with health problems -- or other personal problems -- and what aren't?
The Americans with Disabilities Act protects workers from being discriminated against because of their disabilities, but when and how must a company come to the decision that the ailment renders an employee unable to perform their job? When should an employee themselves decide that they should leave their position for the sake of the company and/or their own health?
This is complicated stuff. I certainly don't claim to know the answers. But let's call this a teaching moment. Let's start a dialogue here, because one never knows when this may affect you directly. I'm eager to read your comments.
Also, many sincere thanks to Curt Franklin for his help with this story.