Redskins Ruling: But Hearing People Don't Get the Lyrics Either
Redskins fan Shane Feldman, who is hearing-impaired, loved going to football games but felt left out. Unable to hear the public address system, he couldn't understand the referee's calls, the announcer's description of plays during the game, or the stadium's emergency announcements.
Feldman and other deaf or hard of hearing fans complained and then sued the Redskins. The team agreed to post captions on the scoreboard, spelling out everything from the announcements naming the players involved in the last play to the penalty calls and even the ads read over the PA system.
But that wasn't enough for the hearing-impaired fans. Now, a federal court judge has ruled that the Redskins must go even further, posting on the scoreboard the lyrics to any songs played over the loudspeakers.
Exactly what is so magical or essential about song lyrics is not clear from Judge Alex Williams' strangely reasoned ruling in the case. Williams doesn't demand that the Redskins post descriptions of the musical style, beat or harmonies, just that the lyrics be spelled out. Apparently the fact that many, if not most, hearing fans cannot make out the lyrics either does not impress the judge.
It's only fair to post on the scoreboard the summary of each play that gets announced to the crowd--in fact, the scoreboard version is sometimes easier to understand than the announced version, even for hearing fans.
But the songs played during time-outs and halftime are hardly crucial to an understanding of the game. Indeed, many fans find the constant blasting of music distracting and annoying and may even envy the deaf for being able to focus more purely on the game.
The idea, pushed by the deaf fans in their suit, that the Redskins have "not made FedExField fully accessible to deaf and hard of hearing fans" because they don't post song lyrics is so picayune, so petty as to drive other fans to wonder whether the motive is really to enjoy the game or merely to harass the team's owner.
More important, however, the court's ruling threatens every public performance by a sports team, musical group, theatrical troupe or any other artistic endeavor. If, as the deaf fans argue, it is "discrimination" against them to stage a pro football game without putting the lyrics of every song up on the scoreboard, then the same reasoning would force concert halls to post lyrics as singers sing them. Would movie theaters have to erect a second screen on which to flash the lyrics of any song used in the background of a movie? Must stage companies now tear audiences' attention away from the actors by putting up screens spelling out the lyrics of incidental music, or of a song that a character might break into as part of the play?
Amazingly, Williams concluded that the deaf fans "suffered injuries because they did not have access to music captioning and because information allegedly was not being effectively communicated to them." The judge did concede that the Redskins made "reasonable efforts" to accommodate the fans who complained. But Williams says he can't be sure that the captioning the team now provides will continue indefinitely.
The Redskins's lawyers argue that "all information that is integral to the use of the stadium can be gathered solely from watching the game," Williams writes. But the judge says the Americans With Disabilities Act requires that all people be provided with "full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation." And Williams interprets that to mean far more than just the football game, because the Redskins offer more than just a game: "They also provide public address announcements, advertisements, music, and other aural information to hearing fans.... Presumably Defendants provide this aural information to hearing fans for a reason."
So the judge orders the team to provide captions for song lyrics. He rejects the Redskins' "argument that bars and restaurants are not required to caption background music. While the Court expresses no opinion on the ADA requirements for bars and restaurants, the Court believes there is a significant difference between a stadium that seats 91,000 people, which currently captions audio content on large LED ribbon boards, and a bar or restaurant."
Williams never explains what that significant difference might be. In both cases, the music is a supplement to the main offering that customers are buying. In both cases, the primary service--football, or food and drink--could be offered without the music. In both cases, the odds that anyone really listens to the song lyrics are pretty slim. And in both cases, the chance that any appreciable number of people on hand can actually understand the lyrics is almost non-existent.
But most non-existent of all in this case is any common sense, any attempt to be reasonable. Handicapped people should expect to be able to gain access to public places and activities without undue hardship. And it's fair to ask a rich company like the Redskins to invest in some technology to make the game equally understandable to deaf fans--which the team has done for several years now.
But no matter what the law might say or how any narrowminded judge might rule, neither legal verbiage nor wishing it will make all people identical. In any public performance, some people will get more of what's going on and some will get less. Many blind people love going to baseball games; they wouldn't expect the team to have to hire a guide to sit with them and narrate the action to them. They get out of it what their special circumstance allows--and from what blind fans tell me, that is something quite rich and extraordinary, an appreciation for the sounds and smells of the game that goes deeper than many seeing fans will ever know. Similarly, deaf fans may see a level of detail that eludes many hearing fans.
In sports as in so many other areas of life, good people with admirable motives can usually work out problems just fine--it's when someone decides to get the lawyers involved that the whole enterprise goes off the rails.
By Marc Fisher |
October 6, 2008; 8:30 AM ET
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