Jan 31 3:00 PM

A silent Super Bowl: The fight for a more deaf-friendly game

Rachel Mazique signed the national anthem during Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis two years ago, but her performance wasn't featured on TV or inside the stadium.
Courtesy: Rachel Mazique

In front of a worldwide audience of almost 167 million people and another 68,000 live fans at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Rachel Mazique kept reminding herself to smile. Standing next to the likes of Kelly Clarkson, Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton, Mazique was preparing to perform the national anthem and “America the Beautiful” at Super Bowl XLVI in February 2012.

Donning her Miss Deaf America sash, Mazique was the latest in a line of performers who’ve signed the national anthem at the most-watched television event of the year. It’s an eclectic group, ranging from a New Orleans policeman to an Academy Award winner. She was so caught up in the thrill of the moment that it wasn’t until later that she realized there wasn’t a camera person even relatively close to her. Mazique wasn’t being filmed.

On the sidelines, she asked her mom whether she even appeared on the Jumbotron. She hadn’t. Even inside the stadium, Mazique’s performance went largely ignored. The deaf community was so disappointed by the lack of attention given to Mazique that nearly 10,000 people signed a petition calling for the National Football League to enhance its efforts in promoting American Sign Language performers.

Two years later, Mazique considers her presence at the game a public-relations stunt and an act of tokenism by the NFL. The NFL declined to comment for the story.

“I believe we still have a ways to go to move beyond tokenism and even the argument for accessibility,” Mazique, a Ph.D student at the University of Texas at Austin, told America Tonight, “to an appreciation of the art of ASL and the performance, not the interpretation, of a song in a visual, musical language.”

Mazique’s story is one of the more high-profile cases questioning the NFL’s efforts to accommodate its deaf audience at games and on TV. Close to 40 million Americans are either deaf or hard-of-hearing, according to the National Association of the Deaf. And this year, Seattle Seahawks fullback Derrick Coleman will be the first deaf athlete to ever play in a Super Bowl, further spotlighting the way the NFL serves, or fails to serve, its deaf audience during the most popular cultural event in America.

The deaf-viewer experience

Historically, the NFL’s treatment of its ASL performers at the Super Bowl has been uneven. From Super Bowl XXVI in 1992, the first year of ASL performers at the Super Bowl, through last year, the NFL and networks responsible for broadcasting the game have either shown the performers for brief glimpses on TV or inside the stadium, or failed to acknowledge them entirely.

“While I appreciate the fact that the NFL has included an ASL performer at their games for the last 20 years, at every Super Bowl we never know how much coverage on TV will be shown of the ASL performer, so it has been a rocky ride,” said John Maucere, who signed the national anthem at last year’s Super Bowl.

The deaf-viewer experience at the Super Bowl, however, has shown signs of improvement since the NFL partnered with the National Association for the Deaf in 2010. The Super Bowl has long been closed captioned, as required by law, but prior to NAD’s involvement, around 90 percent of the commercials were not, explained Howard Rosenblum, NAD’s CEO.

“At that time, we contacted the NFL and informed them about doing something to get the commercials captioned,” Rosenblum said through an ASL interpreter. “They didn’t even realize the extent of the problem.”

I believe we still have a ways to go to move beyond tokenism and even the argument for accessibility to an appreciation of the art of ASL and the performance, not the interpretation, of a song in a visual, musical language.

Rachel Mazique

Super Bowl XLVI ASL performer

In 2011, the NFL and FOX made the Super Bowl fully-captioned for the first time in the game’s history. And since then, Rosenblum said that “without fail” the NFL has been “a wonderful partner in the process” of improving the viewing experience for deaf and hard-of-hearing fans.

“It’s really important when people watch the opening ceremonies with the music and the anthem that they think of everyone,” Rosenblum said. “…I think that helps set the tone, because so many people are watching the game that it’s a perfect opportunity to remind people of the diversity among us.”

Public outcry from the deaf community has also compelled significant changes from the networks. Last year, CBS had a dedicated camera on Maucere, so viewers could go online and watch his performance in its entirety. FOX, which is broadcasting Sunday’s game, will also have a dedicated camera on this year’s performer, Amber Zion, allowing viewers to stream her rendition of the national anthem and “America The Beautiful” on their computers and iPads, FOX Sports spokesman Lou D’Ermilio told America Tonight. Much like the network does for its deaf viewers who watch “American Idol,” D’Ermilio said that FOX is also making the Super Bowl Pregame Show rundown available for the hearing-impaired.

Performance of a lifetime

And sometimes change just requires a single person caring enough. Maucere knew his performance of the anthem last year likely wouldn’t make it into the broadcast, but he desperately wanted his dying father to glimpse him on TV. Maucere, who’s spent his career entertaining and fighting for the rights of deaf audiences, wanted this to be the performance of his life.

Moments before the show, Maucere and NAD officials made their case to the NFL that Maucere should be closer to Alicia Keys and Jennifer Hudson during their respective songs. They stressed how important it was for the ASL performer not to be separated away from the megastars, but to share in their limelight.

With his better positioning, Maucere says he was shown during the broadcast. And by the end of the anthem, Maucere had stolen the show. His performance – and mannerisms – grabbed the attention of a worldwide audience. The “sexiest deaf guy,” as Playgirl once called Maucere, was even followed by celebrity website TMZ, which joked about how “Super Bowl sign language guy” had an insurance policy for his hands

Now, Maucere is something of a coach for Zion, helping her prepare for this year’s performance and pushing for more face time.

“We need to make sure it becomes a guarantee that the ASL performance will be showcased on television,” he said in an email. “Even though the network showed some shots of me performing last year, it is still not enough. I am hoping that this year the coverage will be better.”

The days following his performance would be bittersweet for Maucere. The day after the Super Bowl, his father passed away. Maucere is grateful that his dad managed to see him – however briefly – reach the pinnacle of his career as a deaf entertainer, and sign the national anthem at one of the most-watched television events in history.

“I am grateful he got to see me perform at the Super Bowl,” Maucere said. “I remember the energy of the stadium was incredible, and I embraced every moment.”

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