When the din of the crowd overwhelms the audio accompanying a feature on the sparkling video screen or the referee’s announcement drowns under a tsunami of boos from the red-clad faithful, it illustrates what each moment is like for those with hearing loss who love Husker football.
As the NU athletic department debuts new high-definition screens, wraparound displays and ribbon boards at Memorial Stadium this fall, some say the Huskers have fallen behind other collegiate programs and professional franchises in effectively communicating with fans.
Stadiums across the country, including the football homes of the Oregon Ducks and South Carolina Gamecocks, added captioning over recent years to transcribe public address announcements and audio features onto a visual medium.
For years, the Kansas City Royals have offered captioning for fans at Kauffman Stadium.
“It seems to us like a very easy solution that can be addressed with ribbon boards or the big screen,” said John Wyvill, the executive director of the Nebraska Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
The commission estimates about 10 percent of Nebraskans live with a varying degree of hearing loss.
After the NU Board of Regents approved a $6.25 million plan last November to replace Memorial Stadium’s 2006 video screens and ribbon boards, Wyvill asked the athletic department to consider adding captioning services.
UNL’s coordinator for the Americans with Disabilities Act, Christy Horn, said the athletic department is looking into options and something could be in place before the start of the football season.
Horn, who has worked on these issues for 30 years, said transcribing public address announcements or advertisements onto a display inside Memorial Stadium requires overcoming unique challenges.
For example, rolling captions across the four smaller screens in the corners of the stadium wasn't practical in past years because to make the text readable would mean squeezing out room for video replays.
It also wasn’t practical to put captions on the massive 117-foot-by-33-foot screen atop North Stadium because several thousand fans would need to turn around to read them, Horn said.
Putting a second screen above South Stadium isn’t in any plans and likely isn’t structurally feasible, she added.
The Office of Civil Rights also restricts the university from implementing certain plans -- like asking fans needing captioning services to sit in a specific section in line with a screen -- or other actions that could be construed as discrimination. And even were it legal, making it happen in a stadium that's been soldout for every game since 1962 would be difficult.
“Our jobs are to balance what’s possible, what the law prohibits us from doing, and what we can do from a technological standpoint,” Horn said.
A spokeswoman for the athletic department declined comment, directing questions to Horn.
A growing number of professional and collegiate stadiums are making space for captioning, whether that’s on their jumbotrons or on dedicated display boards installed at strategic locations.
John Waldo, an attorney specializing on legal issues surrounding hearing loss, lobbies professional football and baseball organizations as well as national destinations in college football to install captioning in their stadiums.
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“The initial reaction a lot of people have is you come to see the game and it might not matter what the announcer is saying,” Waldo said. “That might have been true 40 years ago, but now, you go to be a part of a community experience.”
When universities are slow to make the change and accommodate each of their fans, no matter ability or disability, Waldo said asserting violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act usually pushes athletic departments to act.
Ohio State University added captioning for all announcements at the bottom of its giant end zone screens as well as on television screens throughout the concourse of Ohio Stadium after a lawsuit was filed in 2009.
The National Association of the Deaf sued the University of Maryland in 2013 for failing to provide captioning at its football and basketball facilities. Maryland settled out of court by installing captioning systems for the 2014 seasons.
Likewise, the University of Kentucky agreed to caption all announcements — including the words to “My Old Kentucky Home” — during games after settling a 2012 lawsuit.
At a follow-up meeting after the University of Oregon began offering closed-captioning, Waldo said one staffer without any hearing impairment praised the improvement.
“He said, ‘It gets so loud in there that I was looking at the captions, too,’” Waldo recalled. “That’s exactly the point we’re trying to make — this enhances everybody’s experience.”
Dr. Peter Seiler, a former executive director of the Nebraska commission, said putting captioning in the stadium for all fans comes from the same principle that has led sports bars, restaurants, even doctors’ offices, to turn on the captioning services available on TVs.
“That means people who can hear are learning to rely on the visual information,” Seiler said.
What form a future captioning system at Memorial Stadium, or Hawks Field, the Hibner Soccer Stadium or Nebrasketball games at Pinnacle Bank Arena will look like is unclear at the moment.
Horn and Wyvill huddled for a meeting on Thursday to begin discussing a pilot program that could be rolled out this fall, potentially mixing and matching different approaches.
“We feel like we’re at a point where we have the things in place to start looking at this,” she said.
There could be some captioning on the screens, Horn said, or the athletic department could encourage fans to download a smartphone app that provides captioning in the palm of their hand.
Just how effective an app would be in a sea of smartphones remains to be seen, Wyvill said, and it could have other drawbacks, depending on the weather or the action on the field.
He did say, however, that used in conjunction with other technology, the smartphone app could be beneficial to those fans as they wander the stadium’s corridors on their way to the bathroom or concession stand.
Horn said whatever system the Huskers deploy, she’ll take feedback to help refine a permanent solution.