A Two-Second Love Affair: Sign Language at the Superbowl

ASL Program
February 12, 2022
Still pictures of four former Superbowl ASL Performers: Christine Sun Kim, Rachel Mazique, Marlee Matlin, and John Manucere
Still pictures of four former Superbowl ASL Performers: Christine Sun Kim, Rachel Mazique, Marlee Matlin, and John Maucere

Since 1992, there has been a wide array of ASL performers who have appeared on the field of America's favorite pastime and holiday, the NFL Superbowl, sharing their interpretation of the United States' treasured anthems, "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "America the Beautiful." Lori Hilary performed in American Sign Language for the very first time in 1992, followed shortly after by Marlee Matlin in 1993, a few years after her Oscar victory.

Upon learning of the news of Sandra Mae Frank, Warren "WAWA" Snipe, and Sean Forbes perfoming at the Super Bowl LVI, and more specifically about the inclusion of Sean and Wawa's ASL performances in the Halftime show for the first time in history, the team at DEAF Inc were thrilled! We thought back to WAWA's animated performance in 2021, and cannot wait to see the outcome of this year's show.

Warren "WAWA" Snipe signing "America the Beautiful" in Superbowl 2021
Warren "WAWA" Snipe singing "America the Beautiful" in Superbowl 2021

We also discussed about coverage, as often times our representation can be shadowed, leaving it hard for for the community to enjoy this proud moment.

O say, can you see the sign language broadcasted on the Superbowl's stage? The deaf people O'er the ramparts through the perilous fight and watched their country anthem in sign language disappear on the screen. It didn't disappear; they forgot to showcase the beauty of America in sign language. In our anthem, we sign that the flag waves over the homeland of freedom and bravery, but which does not stand by our American values if disabled people and minorities remain as we have always been, an afterthought.

Christine Sun Kim (2020 Superbowl)

"Robert Kim, Daniel Kevin Harris, Pearl Pearson, Magdiel Sanchez..."
As widely acclimated Deaf artist Christine Sun Kim enters the field as the first Deaf Asian-American to sing at the Superbowl, she recounted names of deaf people who were mistreated or killed by police in her mind.
For Christine, deciding to sing national anthems at the Superbowl was not easy as the Black Lives Matter movement and Colin Kapernick's conflict with the NFL continued. As a child of immigrants, a grandchild of refugees, a Deaf woman of color, an artist and a mother, she was internally conflicted on whether she would follow the trend of 2019 musical artists declining the opportunity to perform in support of Colin Kaepernick.
In the end, Christine explained in her New York Times Opinions article that she had hesitantly accepted the invitation with a heavy and determined heart "to express [her] patriotism and to honor the country [she] was proud to be from, a country that, at its core, believes in equal rights for all citizens, including those with disabilities."

John Maucere (2013 Superbowl)

Famously known and loved as one of our deaf superhero SuperDeafy, nearly everyone in the deaf community knows who John Maucere is. John Maucere is a stereotype-breaking seasoned international Deaf Italian-American performer, actor, entertainer, and deaf rights advocate. He was the first deaf actor in ABC's Talent Development Program, had appeared on several TV shows, including NBC's Law and Order, and later founded DEAFYWOOD Productions which has created multiple deaf shows. As a continuing significantly involved deaf community member, he also was one of the rally leaders who led Gallaudet University's 1988 Deaf President Now (DPN) movement.
He is no stranger to having thousands of eyes on him. Walking to the stage and feeling the incredible energy and moment in the stadium, he was not thinking about everyone's eyes on him except for one particular person in his life, his dying father. He was desperate to know if his dying father could witness him reaching the pinnacle of his career on national TV.

Marlee Matlin (2016 Superbowl)

Out of all Deaf and Hard of Hearing actors, we cannot forget trailblazer and barrier-shattering Marlee Matlin and her Motion Picture Star at the Hollywood Walk of Fame. At age 21, she earned her fame by receiving the Golden Globe award for Best Actress and the Oscar Best Actress award, becoming the youngest recipient of the Oscar award category and one of only four actresses to receive that honor a film debut. In the same year, she got in Harper's Bazaar Magazine's one of the "The Ten Most Beautiful Women" and Esquire Magazine's "Women We Love".
Continuing forward, she collected multiple nominations for Golden Globe, Emmy, Screen Actors Guild, and many other awards and record-breaking accomplishments under her belt. She appeared and starred on multiple award-winning television shows, musicals, and educational and children's programs. Not only as an actress, but she has also produced movies and shows, and she has been a long-time activist and advocate by including but not limited to: serving as a national celebrity spokesperson for The American Red Cross, serves on the boards of many charitable organizations, and one of the voices of the Deaf community.
As she entered the field, she felt fortunate and exhilarated to grace once again for the third time (1993 and 2007) on the NFL Superbowl field and experience working with superstar artists. She inwardly hoped that the Superbowl would rank her as necessary and equal this time as other performers.

Rachel Mazique (2012 Superbowl)

Donning her Miss Deaf America sash and standing next to the big-name singers she never had imagined to perform alongside with 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, a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas (she later had gotten her doctorate in 2017) kept reminding herself to smile.
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. They were not filming her. On the sidelines, she asked her mom whether she even appeared on the Jumbotron. She hadn’t.

We Deaf and Hard of Hearing people share a tacit understanding while watching Superbowl that whoever performs in sign language will likely get less than one or two minutes of total air time.

During the pre-game interview with the Daily Moth pre-game interview (3:01), Christine has expressed her skepticism about getting airtime.

Sure enough, she was right. She was visible for only a few seconds. Moreover, in her article, she reported: "on what was supposed to be a 'bonus feed' dedicated to [her] full performance on the Fox Sports website, the cameras cut away to show close-ups of the players roughly midway through each song." 

Echoing the anxiety we all experience together, John Maucere articulated the helplessness of the situation and relationship we share with the NFL and broadcasters: "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."

Rachel Mazique (2012 Superbowl)

Heartbroken, she sent a dismayed statement on the Miss Deaf America Ambassador Program's Facebook page before it was removed (recovered by a petition signed by nearly 10,000 people calling for the National Football League to enhance its efforts in promoting American Sign Language performers):
"To my family, friends, fans, supporters: Thank you for rooting for me. I'm as disappointed as you are that American Sign Language gained no exposure. ASL was also not shown on the JumboTron inside the stadium--as far as I know. I have poor quality videos of me signing...blurry...signs and face cut off at some points.. shaky film because my mom was being pushed around on the sidelines...not sure if they are worth posting.."

Marlee Matlin (2016 Superbowl)

Marlee wasn't surprised either as she was not visible on national TV while she was completely visible throughout the song on the Jumbotron.
Even a decorated and highly successful actress wasn't deemed equal and necessary under the broadcasters' eyes.
On February 2, 2020, after witnessing Fox Sports' disappointing display of Christine Sun Kim, she posted a vlog directed to all networks demanding the complete visibility of ASL performers on the broadcast, stating it is time.
Click here to watch Marlee Matlin's ASL performance

John Maucere (2013 Superbowl)

"We need to make sure it becomes a guarantee that the ASL performance will be showcased on television,” he replied to America Tonight of America Aljazeera media, “even though the network showed some shots of me performing last year, it is still not enough. I am hoping that this year (2014) the coverage will be better.” 
He was thrilled to learn that his father had seen him on the television, however only for several seconds as expected, and unfortunately, a day after the Super Bowl, his father passed away.
Click here to watch John Maucere's ASL performance

Christine Sun Kim (2020 Superbowl)

"To be honest, it was a huge disappointment — a missed opportunity in the struggle for media inclusiveness on a large scale. Though thrilled and excited to be on the field serving the deaf community, I was angry and exasperated."
Click here to watch Christine Sun Kim's ASL Performance

FIGHT AGAINST CARELESSNESS: ACCESSIBILITY, POLICE, AFTERTHOUGHTNESS

The NFL's long record of carelessness doesn't stop there.

The Superbowl game has been long closed captioned on the TV because it was required by law, however, before 2010, around 90 percent of Superbowl commercials were not captioned because it wasn't required by law. If it was not for Alexis Kashar, a Deaf civil rights attorney (and during that time, the chair of NAD (National Association of the Deaf)'s civil rights committee) pulling in Howard Rosenblum, CEO of NAD in 2008 to address the issue and partner with NFL, we wouldn't have most of our Superbowl commercials captioned.

Howard Rosenblum explained the severity of the NFL's carelessness and inconsideration of the deaf and hard of hearing people: “at that time, we contacted the NFL and informed them about doing something to get the commercials captioned, they didn’t even realize the extent of the problem.”

"Being deaf in America has always been political... Deaf people face many other obstacles and injustices: limited access to mental health services, health care and sign language itself, inadequate online accessibility, lack of employment opportunities and more. And as usual, these inequalities and the burden of their effects fall disproportionately on people of color." -- Christine Sun Kim

These incidents in the NFL are not entirely isolated; they are part of a pattern of carelessness, as Amiel Fields-Meyer noted in her 2017 The Atlantic article on the American police's relationship with the Deaf community.

While the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires the government to provide “effective communication” and “reasonable accommodation,” Fields-Meyer wrote, “When it comes to the deaf community, officers’ gaps in cultural competency have led to strain and miscommunication — and, at times, the use of deadly force.”

The ADA law has tremendously transformed our country and gotten our country to become the world leader of accessibility, however, it is also powerless and counterproductive in some forms due to being an unfunded mandate. Not every business and government entity, including police departments, has sufficient resources to afford the costs to meet our needs, indirectly affecting the treatment toward us to become more discriminatory and stigmatized, primarily impacting our access to various services, employment, and career growth/success.

Nonetheless, advocates don't believe the price is a serious factor: “Many terrible incidents happen in departments that have resources, but the officers involved never bothered to access them, even when requested to do so by the deaf person,” Alex Vitale, a sociology professor, and director of Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, said, “of course, cost is an issue, but often it’s lack of concern or awareness by an officer.”

That’s allegedly the case in the city that harbors the fastest-growing deaf population in America, Austin, Texas, where the police department had contracts with two interpreting agencies, one for business hours and one for nighttime. Amber Farrelly, an Austin criminal defense attorney and certified court interpreter who represents deaf clients in the city stated that the Austin officers don’t use them: “I watch these dash-cam tapes all the time. Ninety-eight percent of the time, there’s no interpreter ever called,” she said. “The thing that just kills me is that they have this already. They have the contract.”

CONTINUATION OF THE FIGHT FOR RIGHTS

"But in the end, I accepted the invitation. Our rights can easily disappear if we do not continue to show up in places like the Super Bowl. I had hoped to provide a public service for deaf viewers, and believed that my appearance might raise awareness of the systemic barriers and the stigmas attached to our deafness — and move some people to action. I hope that despite the failure of Fox to make the performance accessible to all, it did do that." -- Christine Sun Kim

“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, two years after her performance

THIS YEAR (2022) SUPERBOWL ASL PERFORMERS

2022 Superbowl ASL Performers. Starting from left to right: Warren "WAWA" Snipe, Sean Forbes, and Sandra Mae Frank
2022 Superbowl ASL Performers. Starting from left to right: Warren "WAWA" Snipe, Sean Forbes, and Sandra Mae Frank

After many calls to increase the visibility and representation, including public statements from deaf leaders such as Marlee herself, it seems the Superbowl has taken strides. NAD announced on Friday, February 4th, that for the first time in history, the entire half-time performance will be performed in American Sign Language as well.

Best known for her performance in Spring Awakening and other television appearances, Sandra Mae Frank is slated to perform "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "America the Beautiful." Warren "WAWA" Snipes and Sean Forbes, deaf musicians, are slated to perform the half-time show, starring Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Mary J. Blige, and Kendrick Lamar.

On behalf of the organization of DEAF Inc, we send the 2022 performers good energy for their performance, and we applaud them for taking on this role of representing our community and our language on a worldwide stage.

LIST OF SUPERBOWL ASL PERFORMERS FROM 1992 to 2022 (PRESENT)

Superbowl 1992 (CBS) - Lori Hilary's ASL The Star-Spangled Banner Snippet on TV
Superbowl 1993 (NBC) - Marlee Matlin's Full Picture in Picture ASL The Star-Spangled Banner, standing right next to Garth Brooks on TV
Superbowl 1994 (NBC) - Courtney Keel Foley (No Appearances on videos)
Superbowl 1995 (ABC) - Heather Whitestone's Full Picture in Picture ASL The Star-Spangled Banner on TV
Superbowl 1996 (NBC) - Mary Kim Titla (No Appearances on videos)
Superbowl 1997 (FOX) - Erika Rachael Schwarz's Partial Appearance before the National Anthem begins on TV
Superbowl 1998 (NBC) - Phyllis Frelich's Full Picture in Picture ASL The Star-Spangled Banner on TV
Superbowl 1999 (FOX) - Speaking Hands's Full Picture in Picture ASL The Star-Spangled Banner on TV
Superbowl 2000 (ABC) - Briarlake Elementary School Signing Choir (No Appearances on videos)
Superbowl 2001 (CBS) - Tom Cooney (No Appearances on videos)
Superbowl 2002 (FOX) - Joe Narcisse (No Appearances on videos)
Superbowl 2003 (ABC) - Janet Maxwell (No Appearances on videos)
Superbowl 2004 (CBS) - Suzanna Christy's ASL The Star-Spangled Banner Snippet on TV
Superbowl 2005 (FOX) - Wesley Tallent Full Picture in Picture ASL The Star-Spangled Banner on TV and Full ASL America the Beautiful on TV
Superbowl 2006 (ABC) - Angela LaGuardia (No Appearances on videos)
Superbowl 2007 (CBS) - Marlee Matlin's ASL The Star-Spangled Banner Snippet on TV
Superbowl 2008 (FOX) - A Dreamer's ASL The Star-Spangled Banner Snippet on TV

(America the Beautiful song has become the staple for pre-game starting in 2009)

Superbowl 2009 (NBC) - Kristen Santos's 1) ASL The Star-Spangled Banner Snippet on TV 2) No videos found on 2009 America the Beautiful in general
Superbowl 2010 (CBS) - Kinesha Battles's 1) ASL The Star-Spangled Banner Snippet on TV , 2) ASL America the Beautiful Snippet on TV
Superbowl 2011 (FOX) - Candice Villesca (No Appearances on videos)
Superbowl 2012 (NBC) - Rachel Mazique (No Appearances on videos)
Superbowl 2013 (CBS) - John Maucere's 1) Isolated Full CBS Sports ASL The Star-Spangled Banner 2) ASL The Star-Spangled Banner Snippet on TV 3) ASL America the Beautiful Snippet on TV
Superbowl 2014 (FOX) - Amber Zion's 1) Full Picture in Picture ASL The Star-Spangled Banner on TV, 2) ASL America the Beautiful Snippet on TV
Superbowl 2015 (NBC) - Treshelle Edmond's 1) Full Picture in Picture ASL The Star-Spangled Banner on TV, 2) ASL America the Beautiful Snippet on TV
Superbowl 2016 (CBS) - Marlee Matlin's 1) Full In Person Fan-Recorded ASL National Anthem, No Appearance on TV, 2) ASL America the Beautiful Snippet on TV
Superbowl 2017 (FOX) - Kriston Lee Pumphrey's 1) Full Picture in Picture ASL Both Songs on TV
Superbowl 2018 (NBC) - Alexandria Wailes's 1) Full Picture in Picture ASL The Star-Spangled Banner on TV, 2) Full Picture in Picture ASL America the Beautiful on TV
Superbowl 2019 (CBS) - Aarron Loggins's 1) Isolated NAD-Recorded Full ASL The Star-Spangled Banner, 2) Zero ASL The Star-Spangled Banner airtime, but caught from distance on TV, 3) ASL America the Beautiful Snippet on TV, 4) Isolated NAD-Recorded Full ASL America the Beautiful
Superbowl 2020 (FOX) - Christine Sun Kim's 1) Isolated Full FOX Sports Recorded ASL Performance (Both Songs) 2) ASL America the Beautiful Snippet on TV, 3) No The Star-Spangled Banner appearance on the TV
Superbowl 2021 (CBS) - Warren Snipe (WAWA)'s 1) Isolated Full NAD-Recorded ASL The Star-Spangled Banner 2) ASL The Star-Spangled Banner Snippet on TV, 3) Isolated NAD-Recorded Full ASL America the Beautiful 4) ASL America the Beautiful Snippet on TV

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