WASHINGTON (DC News Now) — From inside of a helmet, the Gallaudet University football program is changing the game for deaf and hard of hearing football players.
“It’s really special you know,” Gallaudet junior quarterback Brandon Washington said. “Giving the deaf people and hard of hearing kids an opportunity to play the game that they love.”
Washington and his teammates were part of history on Saturday, when the Bison wore newly developed 5G helmets designed by AT&T that simplified the game for the deaf players.
The helmets allowed coaches to select plays on an iPad, and the play to be displayed on an augmented reality digital screen in their visor. The team wore the helmets after being given a one-time use waiver by the NCAA.
“It was the first time that I saw our head coach not have to jump up and down to get their players attention and not having any miscues or miscommunication,” Gallaudet University Athletic Director Warren Keller said through an American Sign Language (ASL) interprete. “I mean we’re talking about a minuscule percentage of mistakes and that had huge impact on game.”
In the game, Gallaudet defeated Hilbert College 34-20, for its first win of the season.
“I was able to see that folks were able to understand each other communication-wise, plays were being communicated, he was able to call an audible by pressing an alert button and getting the quarterbacks attention,” Keller said. “In the past, you know sometimes we wouldn’t be able to catch that audible from the sideline and that would result in a loss or in a penalty.”
Gallaudet, which is the only higher education university in the world that is specifically designed to accommodate deaf and hard of hearing students, fittingly is the first to level the playing field for deaf athletes through this specific technology.
“Knowing that Gallaudet University were the first ones to use that technology,” Gallaudet football head coach Chuck Goldstein said. “That’s just amazing and cool to think that we made history.”
Some members of Gallaudet’s team have been deaf since birth, some have partial hearing. Some have played on fully deaf football team’s since grade school, some had never played on an all-deaf team until stepping foot on the field at Gallaudet. For all their players, these helmets are a big deal.
Captain and offensive lineman John Scarboro has football ingrained into his family history. His grandfather, who was also deaf, won a high school football state championship with the North Carolina School for the Deaf in the early 1960s. Now, Scarboro is leading the way for future generations of deaf players.
“Everyone really should have that opportunity to experience what it’s like playing with these helmets. You know football is an American sport and I love being a part of it,” Scarboro said through an ASL interpreter. “I think that my family would be proud to see what we’re just beginning with this helmet technology.”
The technology has not been approved yet by the NCAA for full-time use, but the team hopes that will happen in the near future.
“What’s stopping you from approving this? What’s stopping you? We’re already at a disadvantage,” Scarboro said. “The NCAA strongly believes in having equality or equity in every sport, so why not level the playing field?”
A level playing field could go a long way for deaf student-athletes. These new helmets could help football players reach higher levels of the sport, that they couldn’t reach before.
“Half of our team played on hearing teams in mainstream schools and if they had this technology in high school,” Goldstein said. “Maybe they could show that they were a better player than they were because they didn’t get that fair opportunity.”
In the Bison’s win on Saturday, Washington rushed for over 100 yards and scored three touchdowns on the ground. The touchdown mark matched his career high. Washington wished he could have worn this technology in high school, but is thankful to have it now.
“A lot of deaf kids and hard of hearing kids don’t get this opportunity to play sports that they love,” Washington told DC News Now. “So I think with this helmet, that it will change the game for kids like us.”