Football and Deafness

Once again, another October is just upon us and with it, the middle of football season. Both NCAA football and the NFL are in full swing with analysts talking about the surprise teams, and teams that are struggling. It’s an exciting time for young players as well since high school homecoming and conference games are also being played. Despite the difference in these leagues, there are many similarities and constants. One of these is the use of the huddle.

Not many people know this, but the huddle was actually invented by a deaf football player, Paul D. Hubbard, who played for Gallaudet University in 1892. This method was implemented so that he could discuss strategy with his teammates while using Sign Language that wouldn’t be seen by the other team. The huddle continues to play a significant role for deaf players and teams, as well as many teams in the NCAA and NFL. But what other strategies can be used to help deaf players succeed in the sport of football?

Football is a sport that requires communication from coaches to players and players to other players, some of which is done verbally and some non-verbally. A few weeks ago I tuned into a NCAA football game featuring my favorite team and alma mater, Wisconsin Badgers, against the Arizona State Sun Devils. In this game, the announcers pointed out that the Badgers’ sideline would hold up a solid red sign to let the defense know when a substitution was happening. Using a visual cue, such as the one the Badgers used, would be vital to the success of a deaf player. A couple of years ago, I saw another team use signs as a part of their strategy— the Oregon Ducks. Their signs represented offensive plays so they could run their speedy offense. With these two examples, using signs can be a strategy for deaf players on both the offense and defense.

Given the loud environment of football games, signs and visual cues are probably the best way to ensure communication to deaf players. For this reason, it is imperative that key players on the team are aware of teammates with hearing loss. For example, if a deaf player were a running back, it would be very important to make sure the team’s quarterback is mindful that he is hard of hearing. While some players may be reluctant to share their hearing loss with their teammates, it more likely than not that they will be accepted. With the mutual goal of winning a football game, it is possible they will even go out of their way to make sure things are being relayed to the deaf player correctly.

Coaching a deaf player can be challenging, but using available technology can be vastly beneficial. Using Powerpoints with captions in team meetings would help tremendously for players who cannot hear. Having a sign language interpreter on the sideline would also help for deaf players and coaches to communicate in practices and games. Essentially, it’s just a little bit of extra effort on the part of coaches, but is more than doable.

Football can be very challenging for a deaf player, but with the right attitude, a coach that believes in the player, and supportive teammates, there is no reason that a deaf player cannot be great. In fact, there have been deaf players in the NFL and NCAA ranks. There are deaf high school football teams who absolutely decimate their competition – just do a Google search for “California School for the Deaf Football” and a handful of articles will surface. There are other deaf football teams that have found similar success as well. Many of these teams use the strategies noted in this article, often combining the visual signs and huddling up. Success for deaf football players is in reach and there is proof of that in these teams and players.

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