Uniting deaf Americans through football

Written by Staff Writer for CNN London, Linda Massarella

A hearing-impaired football team in California is challenging perceptions about deaf and hard-of-hearing people in the mainstream American sports world, with a gritty campaign that seeks to harness their shared passion and create exciting opportunities.

‘You can’t just fix it when you die’

Scholarshiped by established deaf colleges such as the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), the Davis ASL (Advanced Spelling Language Association) Deaf Football Team has forged a unique relationship with local sportscasters as part of a broader campaign to boost their profile.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to reach deaf kids and deaf families to get involved in the Deaf community, and also to expose deaf people to the sport of football,” said Senla Ronquillo, ASL football team member and former head volleyball coach.

ASL’s annual rivalry game with the Washington State University team has become a popular tradition. CNN’s Lauren Lean

Paul Olvera, an ASL football team player and former kicker on the UCLA College Cheerleading squad, said: “We wanted to create awareness in the deaf community to get more kids in to sports and show them that deaf people can play sports too.”

Ultimately, ASL coach Matt Wood said: “People view us as small community — deaf people tend to relate to some deaf community, but when you have deaf versus hearing people come together they tend to see us as only one side.

“We’re a football team and we’re a well-trained team, but we’re deaf, we don’t speak English. We’re the underdog all the time.”

Perception and perception

Wood says that following ASL’s first regular season matchup against Washington State University in October 2016, they made a promise to themselves to make another “great game” the following season.

“We start this year with the same goal, and once we start moving on like that, the culture is created. I think that’s the biggest thing,” said Wood.

Packed sold-out crowds began to form outside the stadium’s gates in anticipation of the home game.

The Davis ASL Deaf Football Team face San Jose State University in a game with West Point military academy in 2017. CNN’s Lauren Lean

“I mean, I grew up playing. It was frustrating to have my friends in the front row not in our section … I hope it’ll be people who don’t have deaf friends and maybe they will come out.”

The participants in the Davis ASL Deaf Football team tend to find their front rows filled with family, friends and supporters of other deaf people. It’s an increasingly common phenomenon among deaf and hard-of-hearing groups, with deaf and hard-of-hearing players from a variety of college and high school teams joining together as a sort of unofficial “national team.”

The full national team of ASL football players between the ages of 18-24 was only formed earlier this year.

“It’s a lot of hours invested in getting the vision and the passion across. You just can’t just fix it when you die,” said Wood.

Deaf communities, community leaders

The four on the team are sometimes paid some compensation as their playing time increases, although their commitment to the sport is always first and foremost.

“I don’t see how we could be more attached to our sports team,” said U.S. Deaf Athletics Association president Patricia Rosa Lopez. “We’re team players.”

One contributor to the Davis ASL team’s success has been Ruwan Weerasekera, the South African-born former ESPN broadcaster who met the team players while hosting national television broadcasts of the 2015 South African Deaf Football Championship.

Social media for deaf people

“The message is that you don’t have to be spoken for; you can be heard for,” said Weerasekera. “This transcends even baseball — I mean, it’s been decades since baseball has been embraced by hearing communities.

“When you have a deaf and hard-of-hearing team and they have the same passion, then that’s OK. Deafness is OK. We just want you to understand it.”

The Davis ASL Deaf Football Team faces USC University in 2014. CNN’s Lauren Lean

Alicia Marshall, an ASL football team member and former University of California, Santa Barbara, graduate, said that the key to success for ASL football is offering a simple alternative to dominant spectator sports.

“We rely on getting as many eyeballs as possible, especially over the deaf community,” said Marshall. “We’re raising the issue of deaf athletics. We’re often seen as an untapped resource that you can use to your advantage.”

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