By Henri E. Cauvin and Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 3, 2008
A federal judge in Greenbelt has ruled that the Redskins must continue to run captioned play-by-play at FedEx Field and begin showing the lyrics of songs played in the stadium to offer deaf and hard-of-hearing fans the full game experience.
The decision mandates that the team do much of what it began doing voluntarily after being sued. The ruling appears to be the first of its kind in the country, and advocates for the deaf and hard-of-hearing said it could lead to challenges at sporting venues around the country. An NFL spokesman said the league was reviewing the decision.
After the lawsuit was filed in 2006 by three hearing-impaired fans, the Redskins began captioning game announcements, public service spots and advertisements on midfield screens. The ruling requires that deaf fans also be treated to the lyrics, spelled out on the screens, of such tunes as "Who Let the Dogs Out" in all its repetitive resonance.
U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams Jr. ruled Tuesday that under the Americans With Disabilities Act the Redskins captioning was not optional but required. He said the team had made "what appears to be have been reasonable efforts" to accommodate the hearing-impaired but that the additional steps were needed.
Shane Feldman, a 30-year-old fan from Silver Spring who was one of the three to sue, said when he first started going to games several years ago, he sometimes struggled to follow the action. "I was lost a few times," he said. "I didn't know what was happening, who the players were, what the penalties were for."
Captioning has allowed him to experience the game in much the same way that other fans do, and the lawsuit was essential to ensuring that right for hearing-impaired people, Feldman said. "The Redskins needed to understand that they had to provide captioning so that we could really the enjoy the game."
In a statement, the Redskins said the judge's ruling vindicated the team's efforts to accommodate hearing-impaired fans.
Since 2006, the large LED screens at the 50-yard line have carried text versions of post-play announcements, referee calls and other chatter over the public address system. The game's play-by-play appears in type on half of the television monitors around the concourse.
The judge said that ADA regulations also require that "music with lyrics played at FedEx Field be effectively communicated to deaf and hard of hearing fans."
Only "The Star Spangled Banner" and "Hail to the Redskins" are captioned at FedEx Field, the Landover stadium that has been the Redskins' home since 1997.
The modern stadium experience is more than touchdowns and tackles, the judge said. "Defendants provide more than a football game; they also provide public address announcements, advertisements, music and other aural information to hearing fans at FedEx Field," Williams wrote.
"Presumably, Defendants provide this aural information to hearing fans for a reason. This aural information is a good, service, facility, privilege, advantage, or accommodation. Without some form of auxiliary aid or service, Plaintiffs would not have equal access to this information," the judge wrote.
Joseph B. Espo, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the effects of the decision could be far-reaching. "We think this has significance for other sport venues," he said. "The people who run other sports venues need to take note of this and bring their stadiums into compliance with the law."
Washington's newest stadium, Nationals Park, captions everything said on the ballpark's public address system, said team president Stan Kasten, who said he had not seen Williams's ruling.
The judge did not say precisely how equal access should be provided at FedEx Field but noted that the plaintiffs would not be aided by the assisted listening devices the stadium has long provided to patrons who request one.
Whether the midfield screens must be positioned in the sightlines of the JumboTron screens in the end zones is an issue for a jury if the two sides proceed to a trial, the judge said.
In an interview, Redskins General Counsel David Donovan said the team would begin looking for ways to address the judge's remaining concern that deaf fans be able to read the lyrics of music used during cheerleader dance routines.
Otherwise, he said, the decision would have little consequence for stadium operations.
"We already caption every word spoken in the public address system in the stadium," Donovan said. "We've just got to figure how to address the issue of lyrics to songs. There isn't anything else in this decision that we don't already do."
The team said the captioning systems also have helped hearing fans, providing way to follow announcements when cheering overwhelms the address system or during beer runs to the concourse.
But Rich Tandler of Midlothian, Va., a season-ticket holder since 1967, said he hadn't noticed the LED boards. "It's pretty unobtrusive," said Tandler, who runs the blog RealRedskins.com. "If it helps a small number of people, I certainly don't see it distracting everybody else. But the music thing seems excessive. I can't understand the lyrics half the time myself."
Marc Charmatz, a longtime attorney for the National Association of the Deaf and another of the plaintiffs' attorneys, said that although the Redskins had acted on their own after the lawsuit was filed, it was important to pursue the case to its conclusion.
"The Redskins never wanted to admit any legal responsibility whatsoever, with the result that they could turn on and off the captioning at any time they wanted," Charmatz said. "So it was necessary to get a ruling that they have a legal requirement to provide captioning."
Staff writer Mark Maske contributed to this report.