Every year, millions of people tune in to watch the Super Bowl — whether it’s for the thrill of the game itself, the million-dollar commercials, the halftime show, or to participate in what’s considered to be one of the biggest televised sporting events in cultural history.
For a long time, the Deaf and hard-of-hearing communities were unable to experience the full Super Bowl experience. The NFL only began its attempts of inclusion in 1992, when the national anthem was interpreted for the very first time during the game.
Following that, the NFL partnered with FOX in 2011 (Super Bowl XLV) to ensure the game and its commercials were broadcast with closed captioning. Taking it a step further, beginning in 2016 the NFL started to push sports accessibility to new heights, enlisting ASL interpreters to perform alongside celebrities as they sang some of America’s most iconic and patriotic songs at the game’s pre-show.
This year, the NFL worked with the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) to include Deaf ASL performers, Warren “Wawa” Snipe and Sean Forbes, in the halftime show. Alongside hip hop legends Mary J. Blige, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem, and 50 Cent, Wawa and Sean Forbes made history as being the first ASL performers to interpret the halftime show.
However, the efforts to make the halftime show truly accessible fell short. Wawa and Sean’s performance was only available for streaming on the NBCSports App and NBCSports.com. That meant that anyone who watched the game on broadcast TV missed out on their performance.
It’s all about ease of access
The NAD spent the week leading up to the Super Bowl posting behind-the-scenes footage, showing Wawa and Sean getting ready and rehearsing at the SoFi stadium in Los Angeles. In addition, they provided simple instructions on how to watch the ASL performance:
Seems easy enough, right? But ease wasn’t the reality. During game day, it became obvious that forcing viewers to watch on separate devices was not an easily accessible experience. The performance that was meant to provide accessibility quickly became that which caused confusion and frustration.
Fans and members of the Deaf community expressed their confusion and disappointment in missing the ASL performances of the halftime show.
Members of the community highlighted the need for full, equal accessibility, calling for the ASL performances to be shown directly on screen on broadcast TV.
In failing to show the ASL performances, many in the Deaf community missed out on an “accessible” performance and millions more hearing people missed out on the opportunity to experience the beauty of American Sign Language and Deaf culture.
So what really happened?
A few days after the Super Bowl, Deaf vlogger Melissa “MelMira” Yingst interviewed both Wawa and Sean to ask them “hard questions” about what happened and their opinions.
Wawa explained that they weren’t completely aware of the process and set-up until they got there. “We thought it would show as picture in picture on TV, but we learned later that it would be streamed separately.”
“There’s always room for improvement… and opportunity for more networks to learn from this” — Wawa Snipes
He explained that they were there to provide accessibility and apologized that the needs weren’t completely met. “There’s always room for improvement,” he said. “This is the first [halftime show], so there’s opportunity for more artists to be involved in this and for more networks to learn from this.”
A seat at the table
Wawa and Sean were put in the spotlight to respond and act as representatives for their performance, but it’s important to remember that they were hired as performers. While they can certainly use their platform to influence some decisions, ultimately, they aren’t the decision-makers.
It’s critical that people from the Deaf community are brought into positions in which they can make decisions and influence systemic change. By providing a seat at the table and incorporating Deaf perspectives, only then can true equity become a reality.
Why ASL interpretation matters
These missed opportunities demonstrate the struggles for media inclusiveness. ASL is a beautiful language that can and should be effectively used to convey information and expressions that would otherwise be overlooked without its addition to mainstream cultural events.
While ASL is traditionally viewed as a language that is concentrated around somewhat limited body motions using different hand, shoulder, head, and facial movements, it goes beyond just a word-for-word translation and can transform a hearing-centric experience into a visually-centric and entertaining one.
In recent years, ASL performers have introduced unconventional body language and gestures to enhance communication and turn words into a visual art piece. They have not only translated words into signs, but they have extended their expertise to transform the subtleties of communication into an engaging ‘performance’ that conveys a true experience as it relates to tone, emotions, and pace by matching the rhythm, tempo, and tenor of how singers perform.
At the Super Bowl, ASL performing artist Christine Sun Kim entertained the crowds with a very charismatic interpretive dance, sweeping her entire body back and forth during her rendition. And when John Maucere performed, he stole the show with his enthusiastic mannerisms and energy. ASL performer “Wawa” Snipes even designed his own niche, dubbed as “Dip Hop”, or “Hip Hop Through Deaf Eyes”, where he combined audio and imagery to mesmerize the audience.
Those who were able to see Wawa and Sean’s performance were in awe as they watched their performances encompass full-body movement to demonstrate the musical performance, making the experience for viewers truly authentic.
Indeed, while the addition of ASL performance has brought mixed feelings of joy and frustration to Deaf and hard-of-hearing sports fans, these performers still powerfully illustrated how ASL can be informative and beautiful all at the same time.
Previous attempts at ASL inclusion
In the past, major sports and media organizations made some attempts to accommodate Deaf and hard-of-hearing sports fans who are watching the game on TV or from the stands. However, their attempts fell short.
When Marlee Matlin performed her ASL interpretation of the National Anthem next to Lady Gaga at Super Bowl 50, her performance was hardly shown on screen. When she interpreted “The Star-Spangled Banner” into ASL again during Garth Brooks’ performance, she only appeared on camera because Brooks had insisted on it.
When Christine Sun Kim interpreted “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful”, her performance, too, was not broadcast in full for viewers watching at home. People only managed to see a few snippets of it, with the cameras shifting focus to Demi Lovato and Yolanda Adams.
Following her performance at SuperBowl LIV Kim wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times titled, “I Performed at the Super Bowl. You Might Have Missed Me,” expressing disappointment that her performance wasn’t accessible to all viewers. Marlee Matlin tweeted in support, urging networks to show ASL performers front and center, to be accessible to all.
In 2012, when performer Rachel Mazique performed, she was not featured on TV or on the jumbotron. In fact, the cameras did not acknowledge her presence at all. In response, fans in the deaf community signed a petition requesting that the NFL make more of an effort to highlight ASL performers rather than hide them from the spotlight.
Since 2012, public outcry from the Deaf community has encouraged significant changes from the networks. CBS committed to dedicating cameras on John Maucere, making his performance available to viewers online. To make sure his performance was actually featured, Maucere and NAD officials advocated for him to perform as closely as possible to megastars Alicia Keys and Jennifer Hudson. And FOX, agreed to broadcast Amber Zion’s rendition of the National Anthem and “America The Beautiful” in its entirety. Although it was published on social media, Aarron Loggins interpretation during Gladys Knight’s performance of the National Anthem and “America the Beautiful in 2019, was also never broadcast.
More well known for his performance that went viral is Warren “Wawa” Snipe, a Deaf rapper and recording artist, who performed at the Super Bowl in 2021. CBS failed to offer a split-screen of him alongside Eric Church and Jazmine Sullivan. Even though the NAD took the initiative of publishing it to its YouTube channel for everyone to see the full interpretation, viewers only saw a truncated version of “Wawa’s” amazing work when it became live.
The ASL performers who have performed at the Super Bowl in years past are the true stars for showing up, and beginning a legacy of representation and inclusivity, illustrating how accessibility is a responsibility for all producers, whether they are broadcasting a sports event or anything else in the media world.