AAt first glance, the bison on the Gallaudet University football team might not seem obvious to almost anyone who is deaf or hard of hearing. For the most part, the game goes on like any other fall Saturday at any other small university in the United States. Players quickly beat their chests after important plays. Cheerleaders try to pump up the crowd during halftime. A fan of the away team swears loudly to the more polite applause of the crowd.
However, certain differences emerge in the end. Five beats of a resonant bass drum alert Gallaudet’s special teams units (many of whom are engaged in sideline discussions with the coaches) of upcoming punts and punts. Instead of using a headset, forward John Scarborough communicates via American Sign Language (ASL) with the coach standing above the crowded stands. Instead of someone singing the national anthem before kickoff, the cheerleading squad plays it in ASL while standing at midfield.
Gallaudet (pronounced GAL-eh-DET, as if the ‘u’ were silent) is the only liberal arts university in the world expressly dedicated to the education of students who are deaf and hard of hearing. Founded during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, Gallaudet (American) is older than football itself and actually played an important role in the development of the sport. In 1894, Gallaudet player Paul Hubbard, worried that his team might interpret ASL play calls if other teams were openly signed, circled his teammates a few yards from the line of scrimmage to discuss strategy. And so a collision ensued. (There are several competing claims for the origin of the huddle, but Gallaudet seems to have the strongest claim. Even the legendary University of Illinois coach Robert Zuppke has admitted that he is credited with inventing the idea of a deaf football team.)
Sports innovation is only a small part of Gallaudet’s legacy. For more than 150 years, the university has served as a center for America’s deaf community, fostering a community where intentional deafness is a given, not an exception. With this in mind, it is worth reviewing some of the terminology surrounding deafness.
For example, using ‘deaf’ (with a lowercase ‘d’) before even two sentences is a move that may irritate some. Whether or not the ‘d’ in ‘deaf’ should be capitalized remains an unresolved debate within the deaf/deaf community. Broadly speaking, many people argue that “deaf” describes all people with an audiological condition that makes them unable to hear, while “deaf” refers to a shared culture. norms shared by people with hearing impairments, especially those whose first language is sign language. However, this nuanced difference is not universally observed.
The degree to which individuals grow up around the deaf/deaf community varies at Gallaudet. Scarboro, who signed with his coach in the press box, grew up using ASL and played high school football at the Texas School for the Deaf (he has fond memories of playing under the “Friday Night Lights” in front of the state’s famously passionate high school football fans). Alternatively, Florida-bred linebacker Laron Thomas says, “I was the only deaf person in all my major schools my whole life… [coming to Gallaudet] it was such a big change. I had access to everything in ASL when communicating with my coaches, teammates, and athletic trainers. It made everything here more comfortable for me, and it ended up being a second home.
There is also a complex relationship between deafness and the concept of “disability”. On the one hand, deafness is legally considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Conversely, many members of the community themselves reject this label, instead viewing deafness as merely a physical trait like height or skin color, developing its own subculture expressed through ASL (a grammatically distinct language in its own right). right, not just a visual interpretation of the English language).
For those who are not fluent in ASL, walking around Gallaudet truly feels like walking in a country with a different language and culture. There’s even an off-campus Starbucks where business is conducted entirely in ASL. This impression is complemented by the (good-natured but sincere) embarrassment you feel when you realize that you cannot ask even the simplest questions in your native language. Which, in many ways, is the point—listening to individuals on the Gallaudet campus who must learn to adapt to the norms of the deaf community, not the other way around.
Many Gallaudet football players want to emphasize that no they consider themselves disabled. “I feel the same when I’m on the field [as hearing people]says offensive lineman Mitch Dolinar, who considers himself hard of hearing. “I don’t have a disability. I … I don’t consider myself disabled.”
“We can do anything,” defenseman Stefan Anderson said. “People say, ‘Deaf people can’t drive, we can’t do this, we can’t do that,’ and it’s like, ‘No, we really can.'” Anderson knows what he’s talking about – he was named to the first team. In his conference last season, he played an all-around defense, defeating hearing players from many rival universities.
Deafness, like any other attribute, comes with inherent sporting benefits and costs. The lack of music during pre-game warm-ups seems to throw visiting teams out of rhythm. “I think that’s a Gallaudet advantage,” head coach Chuck Goldstein said. “It’s as quiet as can be and the teams look flat. But for us, it’s just another day in training… I love it.” While Gallaudet, America’s only deaf college football team, can’t bring that silent awe to its pregame warmups, occasional road games draw deaf and hard-of-hearing crowds so large that Bison fans outnumber them. stands more than the supporters of the home team. In many ways, Gallaudet is America’s deaf football team.
Some players feel that the benefits of deafness go beyond the environment, extending to in-game moments. “I think so I advantage in one game,” linebacker Rodney Burford, Jr. “I you can talk trash and you can hear me. When you talk trash i can’t hear you… [that means] I’m already in your mind.”
The most obvious disadvantage for deaf players during a football game is the referee’s whistle. Gallaudet coaches meet with officials beforehand to reiterate the need for visual or tactile cues to accompany any blown whistles, but referees sometimes forget to do so. This can lead to fines.
Coach Goldstein recalls a play three years ago when the referee failed to tell a rushing Gallaudet defender that the play was dead. A Gallaudet linebacker who tried to run through the other team’s line of scrimmage was eventually released and made a good tackle on the other team’s linebacker after the play ended, resulting in a personal foul penalty. “It was like a fourth-and-goal at the goal line,” Goldstein says. “Just before halftime and [the referees] ended by giving a penalty [the other team] we scored on the next play … and then we lost that game on a last-second goal.”
Despite such turmoil, the bison is on the rise. Last season started promisingly with five straight wins and ended with three losses. Players and coaches agree that this year’s goal is to win the conference. To that end, the Bison came out of the gate with a season-opening loss to Waynesburg University.
They quickly returned to winning form in their second game, but defeated Greensboro College 31-14 in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score would have predicted. “We came out swinging. That’s our identity, we’ve got to hit you before you hit us,” Burford said. “They started hitting us in the fourth quarter…[but] we were already up. We allowed our reserve players to play.”
In addition to being a much-needed win for the Bison, the game against Greensboro also featured many great plays. Thomas intercepted a pass in the red zone to stop a potential Greensboro comeback. Burford put up a great fight and was immediately rewarded with a large, plastic necklace with a bottle of Pearl Milling Company syrup dangling like a medallion (a visual play on the fact that the opposing player had just been pancaked). In the most notable play of the game, linebacker Dolinar threw a perfect touchdown pass on a trick play after masquerading as a field goal holder.
“It feels like a lot has changed in one game,” said Anderson, who himself had a timely sack before halftime. Since neither Waynesburg nor Greensboro play in the same conference as Gallaudet, the team’s goal of winning the conference is still very real.
The inherently short nature of a college sports career gives every team a little Last Dance quality every season, and this year is no exception. That seems especially true for linebackers Anderson and Burford, who have played together since high school in addition to working closely together on the field.
“What can I tell you about Rodney?” Anderson asks. “He’s like a brother to me, he’s family…it’s going to be hard as we go our separate ways. We have been through a lot together.” Anderson visibly moved. “It can be emotionally intense for me.”
Graduating from Gallaudet comes with the added hurdle of returning from a society where deafness is the norm to mainstream society where many people are unfamiliar with or even unaware of deaf/deaf culture and ASL. However, there are actions that people with hearing loss can take to help ease such transitions for members of the deaf community (in addition to going out to support the bison if they’re playing next to you, of course).
“Learn a little sign language, it won’t hurt you,” says Anderson. “A few basic signs, just a hello or anything … You’re going to meet deaf people in your life, so be prepared – it’s worth it.”