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A More Even Playing Field

A new football helmet is designed to communicate plays to players who are deaf or hard of hearing.
A football player holding a football faces off with an opposing player on a field.
Courtesy of AT&T
Brandon Washington, quarterback for Gallaudet University (holding the ball) rushes against an opponent.

A new football helmet allows coaches to communicate with players who are deaf or hard of hearing.

The technology works like this: During a game, a coach standing on the sideline can select from a list of plays on a tablet and then send the selection to the quarterback’s helmet. The play appears on a tiny screen at the front of the helmet, where the quarterback can see it. The quarterback then communicates the play to the rest of the team. This process is similar to how plays are communicated to hearing quarterbacks. Many of them receive audio messages from coaches via speakers in their helmets.

A man on a football field holds a tablet and phone next to a closeup of a helmet with a tiny display.
Courtesy of AT&T
Gallaudet University football coach Chuck Goldstein transmits plays to AT&T’s new football helmet, seen on the right.

The helmet was developed by AT&T in collaboration with Gallaudet University, where nearly all the students are deaf or hard of hearing. Gallaudet’s football team competes in Division III of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

“We work out the same way as every other college football program, we practice the same way, we compete the same way,” Gallaudet coach Chuck Goldstein said in a press release. “The difference between coaching a hearing team compared to a Deaf team is…the communication.”

Brandon Washington poses in a jersey showing ASL signs and the number 5.
Courtesy of AT&T
Brandon Washington, Gallaudet quarterback, wears the Gallaudet football jersey.

For nearly two years, AT&T asked the university’s football coaches and players for input as it worked out how to design the helmet.

“They would give us feedback,” Corey Anthony, AT&T senior vice president of networking engineering and operations, told the Associated Press. “We’d go back, make changes, work on it. It’s just a beautiful relationship that we have with that university.”

The players and their coach are thrilled with the result.

“Just realizing, is this for real? Can you look around and be able to see the plays inside the helmet? I mean, that’s just awesome technology,” Trevin Adams, Gallaudet University quarterback, told Good Morning America.

Did You Know?

A basketball player tries to get control of the ball from an opposing player.
Metin Aktas—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Two basketball players battle for control of the ball during a basketball game at the 2017 Deaflympics.
Sound plays a big role in sports. There’s the calling of plays, the coach’s whistle, and the end-of-period buzzer. That’s why an organization called the International Committee of Sports for the Deaf (ICSD) was established. The ICSD’s mission is to ensure that deaf people have more opportunities to participate in sports. Since 1924, the ICSD has overseen the Deaflympics, an international sporting event for deaf athletes. Like the Olympics, the Deaflympics consist of summer and winter events, both of which take place every four years.

What Derrick Coleman Does Best

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Derrick Coleman helped the Seattle Seahawks win a Super Bowl in 2014.

When Derrick Coleman signed with the Seattle Seahawks in 2012, he became one of a handful of deaf or hard of hearing athletes who have played in the National Football League (NFL). Coleman lost most of his hearing when he was 3 years old and has used hearing aids ever since. Although he started playing football in middle school—and proved to be unusually talented—he was told he’d never play professionally.

But Coleman proved that prediction wrong. After playing at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), the fullback and running back became a Super Bowl champion with the Seahawks. During games, most players listen for the quarterback to call the plays (the strategies the team plans to use). Derrick read the quarterback’s lips—from behind the quarterback’s mouth guard. 

“If I could go back [and meet] 5-year-old Derrick, I’d tell him, ‘Keep having fun, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something, and just do you’,” Coleman said in a video interview released by the Green Bay Packers.

Coleman is with the Packers now, but not as a player. After retiring from the NFL in 2018, Coleman went to work for the Packers as the team’s assistant to player engagement, helping players adjust to life in the league. He also visits schools, where he shares his story with students and encourages them to find their own paths.

“When I see kids [who ask me], ‘How do I be just like you? How do I do that?’ I tell them every time, ‘Just do what you do best.’” Coleman said.

How Sign Language Began

© FG Trade—Vetta/Getty Images
Many deaf people communicate with a form of sign language. You can learn about sign language and how it developed at Britannica.

WORD OF THE DAY

interact

PART OF SPEECH:
verb
Definition:
: to talk or do things with other people
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