Print Columns   |   Web Chats   |   Blog Archives   |  

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
Previous: Frozen Children, Icy Silence--Time To Adopt Openness | Next: Does Talking Politics Make Us A Nation Of Boors?


Please email us to report offensive comments.

"...when someone decides to get the lawyers involved that the whole enterprise goes off the rails."

There are times when lawsuits are necessary to make sure the law is being upheld. The ADA was enacted to ensure that disabled persons could have as much access to broader society as is reasonably possible, so that they have the chance to live meaningful lives.

It's when people call in the lawyers over ridiculous cases like this one that things really get stupid. Stuff like this only cheapens the ADA and other statutes like it. I know several non-hearing people, and all of them told me that they have no idea how anyone would have the time or money to waste on such a stupid thing. Lyrics to songs at Redskins games? Really?

Posted by: Anonymous | October 6, 2008 10:04 AM

It will be interesting to see what they have to do with something like the 18 seconds of "Welcome to the Jungle" that might get played before a kickoff because they stop before the first word is sung.

Posted by: Bandit | October 6, 2008 10:09 AM

"many blind people" - Fisher

Hmm. I'm curious as to what exactly "many" is. Seven, perhaps. They sure couldn't have enjoyed their experience at Nats games this year. Who would? They are boring and awful.

Posted by: dctony | October 6, 2008 10:22 AM

If the Redskins are required to make these changes than I think the Whole NFL's Franchise/owner should be made to do the same for every deaf/disable person.

Posted by: Joyce | October 6, 2008 10:51 AM

As a person born with a disability, I applauded the passing of the ADA in 1990. But, as is the case with some of these s, there is always a group, or groups, that carry the enforcement of said law/amendment/appeasement to the extreme. Don't screw it up for the rest of us; being looked upon as "secondary" people is bad enough. All we want is the ability to have the same chance at life as everyone else.

Posted by: Bruce | October 6, 2008 11:12 AM

There should be the words "laws/amendments/appeasements" after "these" in the second line of my original comment.

Remember kids; proofreading is fundamental...

Posted by: Bruce | October 6, 2008 11:15 AM

How is that a "strangely reasoned" opinion by the federal judge? Is it that hard to understand the words of the ADA? The judge's decision is EXACTLY what the law requires. If you don't like it, your beef ought to be with the 535 numbskulls under the dome, almost every one of them a lawyer by the way, who made it happen. Perhaps all of the legislation they pass needs a "unless doing so would be stupid in the eyes of a WaPo reporter" exception.

Posted by: athea | October 6, 2008 11:21 AM

This is stupid. I have worn hearing aids my entire life (27 yrs) and I have come to accept that nothing is perfect in life and you have to make the most of it. I miss words when I go to the movie theatres; I don’t sue the company, that's life.
I'm sick of hearing (pun intentional) everybody whining about making life easier. We are a country of sissies.

Posted by: Dave | October 6, 2008 11:50 AM

The music brings nothing to the game. This judge is but another example of someone over-interpreting the law to make themselves look like a champion of the ADA. The decision will easily be overturned, I hope. Let's be realistic, people: It's a FOOTBALL game. Maybe this is a reason to not play music between plays at all. What about the music before each at-bat at a Nats game? Oops, sorry, didn't mean to give another target there... And hey, how do we subtitle the organ music at Caps games? Oops, I did it again. (Would we really want to see Britney Spears lyrics written out?)

Posted by: spacehog | October 6, 2008 12:10 PM

What's next your honor, suing Playboy magazine because blind people can't enjoy the pictures?

Then again, if Hef provides the bunnies for evaluation I will hide my glasses.

Posted by: DC Voter | October 6, 2008 1:11 PM

Perhaps if these were homeless people in Montgomery County you could muster a little more sympathy and less derision, Mr. Fisher?

What's really sad here is that sports franchises need to be sued by the deaf or hearing-impaired fans before it occurs to them to post narration of play coverage on the scoreboards. This is not something that would take a huge amount of effort or money in the long run, either, if done up front (and not after paying legal fees).

Yes, posting the song lyrics is a bit extreme and probably unnecessary. But being blind or deaf is not a "special circumstance", and accessibility to those who are not fully sighted or hearing (as opposed to limited mobility) is something that is frequently ignored in businesses today. If companies planned things out beyond what's necessary by the letter of ADA (or Section 508), then there wouldn't HAVE to be expensive lawsuits that get taken one step too far. Just ask Target (

And to imply that *all* those with impairments to hearing or sight already enjoy the game without any accommodations to their disabilities (or in fact, enjoy them more than those with all their physical/sensory capabilities intact) is insulting. It's also the attitude that causes this type of law suit to arise - the blind and deaf enjoy the game in their own way so they don't need anything else!

Shame on you, Mr. Fisher. Just because you've talked to several blind fans doesn't mean you understand the feelings of all those with varying levels of disability.

Posted by: Chasmosaur | October 6, 2008 1:14 PM

The ruling does not *require captioning* to remedy the issue of inaccessible music lyrics; Williams explicitly did not specify a method of accommodation.

And the service you have in mind for blind fans at baseball games is audio description. It would be delivered by wireless headset, not by an in-person guide.

Posted by: Joe Clark | October 6, 2008 1:51 PM

Songs can be a very important way of creating or changing the mood in a place. That's why they're played---to affect the emotions of the people in the stadium and to create a shared collective experience. Why should deaf and hard of hearing people be excluded from that part of the experience unnecessarily? The judge was correct in ruling that deaf and hard of hearing people should have full access to songs as well.

It won't be that difficult to provide the lyrics; they're easily available on the Internet. What'll need to happen is for whoever chooses the music for the Redskins games to have a selection of songs with their lyrics ahead of time and to make sure the person providing the captions has ready access to them.

Many hearing people will actually be delighted to see the lyrics of songs displayed if they couldn't make them out before; if not, they don't have to look at the captions. If anything, showing the lyrics of songs could bring many MORE people to the Redskins games. The majority of people with hearing loss are under the age of 65, and ten to fifteen percent of the population overall has hearing loss so you've got lots of people who would have trouble understanding lyrics who would LIKE to understand them. It's high time that the music industry try to do more to display lyrics for everyone who'd like to know what the song is trying to say.

Posted by: Dana Mulvany | October 6, 2008 5:12 PM

I am not even close to a Dan Snyder fan, but it appears he did make quite a effort to make the plaintiffs happy. I can't wait for the next lawsuit to find out what's next, based upon this scenario, basic legitimate requests will go out of control, the horse if out of the barn,it will go on and on, and guess who pays the bill. I am sure the NFL legal team is just ecstatic about this ruling

Posted by: Collocation | October 7, 2008 8:09 PM

I don't understand what the big deal is here. There is a captioner at the game, writing what is being said. How hard is it to also ask that person to write lyrics as well? In television captioning, songs are captioned. If the captioner doesn't understand the words, then the captioner puts a music note on the screen or writes [INAUDIBLE]. I'm certain that the captioners responsible for captioning Sunday Night Football on television caption the entire "Waiting All Day for Sunday Night" theme. It doesn't seem like a big deal to ask the captioner at the games to do the same.

Posted by: heather | October 8, 2008 12:19 PM

What you are describing for movies is already around. Its called rear window captioning. Check it out...

There are plenty of theaters in DC that already have them installed.. the rest of the country is a bit behind!

I think the judge followed the letter of the law. Its very reasonable to caption songs that are played repeatedly thought the season. Who knows? Some hearing people out there may discover that the lyrics that they thought they knew for a song was totally incorrect!

Posted by: Joscasta | October 8, 2008 12:50 PM

"Handicapped people"? Do you also refer to African-Americans as Negroes?

Posted by: Kevin | October 8, 2008 1:39 PM

I know Shane Feldman. Just another product of the deaf style of education looking for a free lunch, like the rest of them. YOU'RE DEAF! GET OVER IT!

Posted by: BiffGriff | October 8, 2008 1:47 PM

Let me elaborate on my comment. Our country is falling apart as we speak. Physical and economical. You want your football game to be captioned. 70% of your deaf students graduate with a 4th grade reading level. But hey, you want your football game to be captioned! Me, I would rather have a bridge thats not in danger of collapsing into the river but hey, that's just me. Call me crazy, I'm thinking out loud here. Bridges, movies... hmm.

Posted by: BiffGriff | October 8, 2008 2:50 PM

It doesn't matter if you think the lyrics are insignificant for the event-- it's about equal access:

Posted by: Karen Putz | October 8, 2008 3:16 PM

If music isn't essential to the experience, then stop playing it. Many of us that are hearing would appreciate a little less noise.

Posted by: MM | October 8, 2008 9:10 PM

Well, since everybody is so against captions, I guess we should sue for interpreters instead. Oh wait... Interpreters are at least $50 an hour, and would more likely be closer to $100 per hour for this kind of event. Oh, and since we're all sitting in different areas of the stadium, that means we need two interpreters for every deaf person that attends! Hmmm.....

Posted by: Rox | October 9, 2008 10:25 PM

Yeah, if music isn't central to the experience, stop playing it. Of course, the uproar THAT action would cause is justified because the Redskins would now be taking something away from (or I guess simply "not giving something to" in this case) people who can hear. To me, that's the true message of this article... if you can hear, what you want and even take for granted is important. If you can't, not only are the things that you want unimportant... if you sue to get them you simply lack common sense.

Posted by: Agrees with MM | October 9, 2008 11:22 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company