The Super Bowl ASL Performer gives a stunning sign language interpretation of the musical performances – you just won’t see them.
In the week leading up to it, the Super Bowl ASL Performer becomes a hot topic in the Deaf community. Will they show them on the TV or will we have to watch a second screen? Despite the esteemed honor and hyped-up advertising to us Deaf folks, most of the general population doesn’t usually get to see much of the ASL performer at the Super Bowl. Not in the main TV feed, anyway.
I was holding my breath this time. Normally, I wouldn’t. I’m too jaded.
In most years, the only way anyone outside the stadium is able to see the ASL performer is to stream it through a link on a website, which is.. well, it’s weird. Every year, Deaf people ask the powers that be to put the ASL performer on the same screen as the live broadcast and they don’t. We ask again, they don’t. It’s maddening.
Oh but this year, I had a little hope. The Super Bowl ASL performer for the national anthem would be Troy Kotsur! He just won an Academy Award for his role in the movie CODA which also brought home the Best Picture prize. This wasn’t just something talked about in the Deaf community, even hearing people are jazzed it. Surely they’d show him.
I mean, it’s been done before. Marlee Matlin performed the national anthem in ASL back in 1993 onstage. She was right next to Garth Brooks as he sang. Their outfits kinda matched. This was 5 years after she became the first Deaf person to win.
So here we are, 35 years after the first, the second Deaf actor wins an Oscar. Troy’s got that clout now too! So, if anyone should be, he’ll be ON the stage. Or even in a Picture-in Picture (PIP) box – we’ll take that.
Turns out, I didn’t have to wait to find out. A few days ago, the announcements came out with links to watch the ASL performers.. on a separate screen.
I could have kept on breathing as normal. Wait, no. I’m taking deep breaths.
The ASL Performer not being visible at the Super Bowl has been a problem for awhile
In the 30 years since Marlee shared the stage with Garth, the ASL performers at the Super Bowl have mostly been relegated to some off-off-offffffff stage that is not visible to the larger televised audience except for a blink-and-you-missed-it moment.
Sometimes we get the picture-in-picture (PIP). You know, the smaller box showing the ASL performer. But, they’ve only done it 4 times. The rest of the time, we’ve had to watch it on the internet. I’m not sure how it works exactly, but I assume someone whips out their iPhone and streams it on Youtube. If we’re lucky, the assistant coach won’t walk in front of them and no one has a sneezing fit. Deaf bootleg access.
Regardless, in order for one to watch the Super Bowl ASL performer you need a second screen to see the same song performed by the same performers in the same place.
And if you don’t make the 2nd screen preparation ahead of time, you won’t see it at all.
That’s a problem.
And most hearing people don’t know about this. You need to.
Why do you need an ASL performer at the Super Bowl? There’s closed-captions.
Don’t get me wrong, captions are generally super, super important. But, captions can only go so far in giving access to music because there’s a difference between words spoken and music sung.
When a musician is singing a song, would it suffice to just read the words they sang? Of course not. There’s more to a song than the words alone. A song is an art form that needs a vessel to carry it – it’s the artist’s ability to interpret that makes it fully alive and able to be experienced by an audience.
That’s why hearing people are interested in listening to different singers. That’s why Deaf ASL users want to see the sign language performance.
The Star Spangled Banner is notoriously difficult to sing. Likewise, it’s difficult to sign! It’s all about how they do it, right? When someone pulls it off, it’s truly spectacular.
Which is why it’s so disheartening that everyone won’t experience it.
The captions will tell us what was sung, but they can never tell us how.
What’s the real issue we can’t see the ASL performer onscreen?
So, what’s difficult? It’s not a technical issue. They’ve done it before. It should be easy. This is the SUPER BOWL which is, what.. the most expensive, watched show in the Western Hemisphere – the best of the best tech and we’re over here trying to catch a glimpse of something on live TV that they were able to accomplish back in 1975 on the PBS Sunday Sermon. Why is that?
They don’t want to.
It could be aesthetics, egos, many reasons why the producers have made this conscious decision not to show the ASL performer in the main feed.
And, they legally don’t have to. Their bare minimum obligations are met with captions, so in their minds they have far surpassed these with having an ASL performer at all.
In their minds, they’ve thrown us a bone. They’re happy to have the ASL performers back every year. Just as long as they’re over there..
Is it tokenism?
I used to think this whole practice is tokenism. In some ways it is because they do show everyone a little blip of the ASL performer in the live feed, but I’m starting to feel like it’s something else, too.
It’s called othering.
That’s a much bigger problem.
Broadly speaking, othering is a practice that views another group as inferior or “less than” and treats them that way. We’re completely pushed aside with this separate (but unequal) access to the same big-deal thing in our society and then hidden underground.. ultimately because of someone’s opinion (or prejudice) of ASL and/or Deaf people.
We are purposely and systematically kept out of sight.
Here’s what that feels like: we get to know about a party, be able to watch the party from afar, send a representative to be at the party for us, but the only way to access it is to enter from a separate door than everybody else and then made to stand in another room… because we don’t belong in the first room?
The antonym for othering is belonging. I think this fits.
You may think I’m being too harsh. That that things will change. I’d like to be optimistic, but I wrote all this weeks ago. How much I wanted to be wrong.
Change will come when hearing allies give them no other choice
So, this all feels very predictable to Deaf people like me. I’ve long felt that Deaf people alone would bring change but something recently convinced me that the catalyst lies elsewhere: our hearing allies.
Last year at the Oscars, when they announced the the winner of the Best Adapted Screenplay was Sian Heder, the writer and director of CODA, I witnessed something remarkable by a hearing person. As she was about to walk up to the stage, the director, Sian Heder reached for a woman’s hand and the two of them went up. As she began to speak, the woman stood beside her interpreting into ASL.
The interpreter didn’t just appear from the wings. Sian Heder knew where she was near her table and said come with me. In order to ensure the live ASL would be shown, she knew she had to leave them no other choice but to bring the ASL to the stage herself. It was a historical moment no one would get back and it could be cut out, the interpreter wouldn’t make it through the crowd, whatever creative oops would happen so she didn’t risk it. She knew that ASL access had to be within our firsthand visual for this. Not through the live c(r)aptions that may or may not deliver. Not on some b-side, underground access channel. But ASL clearly represented by the person standing on stage next to her.
A hearing ally with power like this is rare. But I know you’re out there.
I hope you’ll grasp that moment someday.
The ASL Performer at the Super Bowl is for YOU, too.
Despite the hoops to jump through, the Deaf community will manage to see the ASL Performer at the Super Bowl, no matter where it is. It could be broadcast on Mars and we’d gather in metal salad colander hats to configure tin foil antennae access.
The bigger issue is, people who don’t know about it, won’t see it. But imagine if everyone did? It’s a great opportunity. Not only for diversity, but for reaching people.
Because where do great hearing allies come from? Everywhere. Maybe a future ally lives in your house right now. Consider what a first exposure to Deaf and ASL on and equal world stage could do for someone’s perception of Deaf people in the community.
Imagine how this would impact a Deaf child with no connections to other Deaf people, yet.
That was my experience. Except it wasn’t the Super Bowl – it was Sesame Street.
The legendary actress Linda Bove first appeared on my TV when I was 6 years old. I had never seen ASL or another Deaf person before. She was unapologetic, forthright and so beautiful. Her spirit, her artistry and obviously her tenacity as a young Deaf actress in the 70s definitely impacted me. A connection was cemented within me.
So because of this, before I met any other Deaf people in person, I knew what a strong, Deaf person looked like. I knew I could be strong AND Deaf. It was possible. Deaf people are as much a part of our communities and the world too. Not from the b side, bootleg channel, but sharing the stage.
That’s not going to happen off in the shadows, no.
But on the stage, next to you. Where we belong. That’s what we’re after, here.
Put the Super Bowl ASL Performer back where they belong – onscreen!
For all my cynicism, I really am hopeful to see the ASL Performer share the actual stage again at the Super Bowl one day. Til then, I’ll celebrate these talented artists and enjoy the performances wherever they are, supporting my community. You can too. And if you get your moment to show you’re an ally, use it!
See the full Super Bowl LVII ASL performances!