A story that has been circulating in the UK media this week about Deaf footballers is a prime example of how the media influences public perception about Deaf people and their involvement in sport.
The first headline in the Birmingham Mail (07:00 26th May 2014) was “Birmingham Deaf football team end season on minus six points.” details
By the time others had got hold of the story and published online, the headlines read :
“Deaf football team concede 164 goals because they couldn’t hear referees whistle.” (Mirror 10:53 ) details
“Deaf football team who conceded 164 goals, appeal against relegation because they couldn’t hear the referees whistle.” (Metro 12:32) details
“They would keep running after the whistle blew: Deaf football team who finished on record low points total blame not being able to hear referee.” (Mail Online 13:43) details
How have the readers reacted?
From all the comments posted:
36% were either prejudiced or negative in their attitudes towards Deaf and disabled people
20% showed their support to the Deaf players and felt referees should be trained to be deaf-friendly with flags.
17% offered constructive suggestions for improving the situation in future
17% were critical of the media’s handling of the story
10% commented constructively that there were other factors causing poor performances
It is a worrying statistic to see 36% prejudiced against Deaf people. This appears to reflect a similar study of racism in the 2013 British Social Attitudes Survey published this week declaring that 1 in 3 people surveyed admitted to being racially prejudiced.
(27th May 9:15am) Callum Fox , Marketing and Communications Officer at North Riding County Football Association:
“If you’re going to pinch a story, have the decency to quote the original which was published in the Birmingham Mail … Also shame on Metro for completely twisting the story to suit their desire for click bait by omitting an entire section of quotes in which the manager says he blames the teams performance for their poor performances, not the ref as you claim. The “journalist” who wrote this ought to be ashamed of himself.”
It can be argued that a more skillful Deaf player will be able to cope without the need for referees to wave flags. But in the Deaflympics, the elite Deaf football competition, match officials do use flags as the following picture will illustrate:
As I mentioned in my last post, it is often said that the rules of sport do not need to be modified for deaf athletes and players. This is misleading, it should be pointed out that the playing environment does need to be adapted – everyone in football does need to become more deaf aware and if they really believe that they are inclusive, they have to take action and compensate by using flags. But, quite rightly, there are Deaf football teams who perform consistently well against hearing opponents and so referees not waving flags is not the only reason for the failure of Birmingham Deaf FC.
UK Deaf Sport staff are investigating the matter and have been working with Birmingham FA and the UK Deaf Football Federation to move forwards and make improvements. When UKDS consulted with partners at Birmingham Institute for the Deaf who have been supporting the football club it was reported that team are unhappy with how the story has been portrayed, the team are the first to admit that they did not play well, and due to lack of organisation and commitment ended in a very poor result.
“From what we can tell, the reporter focused on the issue of lack of flag usage”.
The BDFC secretary said
“Deaf people want to play sports and be treated equally to other people yet after one disappointing season they have been published in newspapers for all the wrong reasons.”
Whilst there are many factors that will affect a team’s performance in a competition, the fact remains that in team sports, if the players do not feel they can trust officials to be unbiased they will not be motivated to sustain their involvement and seek ‘the level playing field’ elsewhere. To be truly inclusive governing bodies of sport need to be more proactive and take their responsibilities seriously by working with Deaf sport to provide the right level of training an awareness that is required of everyone involved, players as well as officials.
Enterprising companies have used wireless digital technology to create vibrating armbands that react when a whistle is blown. But this technology is far too expensive and beyond the reach of the regular amateur club, so for now, football needs to follow the Deaflympic protocol for match officials to use visual signals to signal that the whistle has been blown.
For a more in-depth study of how the media portrays the Deaflympics, read Same Spirit Different Team available now from Action Deafness Books.