P-X-P Is Striving Toward Play-by-Play in American Sign Language
The interpretation company will provide ASL signing during NHL Stanley Cup Finals
Audio is defined not only by sound but by its absence. In fact, a hallmark of digital audio is its ability to convey absolute silence, uncluttered by the inherent noise created by tape, vinyl, and other “contact” recording and reproduction formats.
But absolute silence is a fact of life for approximately 1 million Americans, who have what the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) describes as “disabling hearing loss.” That number balloons to 30 million, according to the National Institutes of Health, when the hard-of-hearing category is included. And they’re big fans of sports on television.
“The passion [the] Deaf community has for sports” is very real,” says P-X-P COO Jason Altmann, who describes himself as “third-generation deaf.” He founded the Milwaukee-based company in August 2020 with partner CEO Brice Christianson to develop and provide American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation services for broadcast sports and live events. The company started out providing the service for NHL Milwaukee Bucks media events, such as press conferences, in 2021. “Unfortunately,” Altmann adds, “the majority of professional sports leagues and teams do not offer a [completely] accessible and inclusive experience.”
P-X-P’s mission is to change that, according to Christianson, who is CODA (child of deaf parents) and hearing himself. He notes that the closed captioning used on television isn’t an alternative to ASL.
“ASL is an actual, bona fide language,” he explains, “whereas captioning is simply the [transcription] of whatever language the speaker is speaking, delineating the difference between interpretation — P-X-P’s intent — and simple dictation. Deaf persons would rather see the signing than read captioning, because ASL is their language. Captions, especially when done using AI, don’t achieve that goal because they are often filled with grammatical errors and misspellings.”
The NHL Hears the Message
P-X-P’s biggest success thus far has been with the Bucks, and the company has been performing similar services for Seattle’s Kraken of the NHL and OL Reign of the NWSL. A breakthrough came last year when it interpreted for NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s state-of-the-league address prior to the 2022 Stanley Cup Finals. It will reprise that role this year, when Bettman speaks before the Finals commence in Las Vegas on June 3, broadcast by TNT/WDC Sports.
“Our relationship with the NHL began a few years ago when [Bucks VP, Arena Experience,] Kieran Nulty, who was our first connection to the NHL, introduced us to [NHL VP, Growth Strategies and Innovation,] Paul LaCaruba,” Christianson recalls, noting that a formal partnership was announced on Dec. 3, 2022, UNESCO’s International Day of Persons With Disabilities (IDPD). “From there, I developed a relationship with Paul and several others within the NHL. We unveiled our vision last year, [interpreting] the commissioner’s address at Ball Arena ahead of the first game between the Colorado Avalanche and the Tampa Bay Lightning. And it blew up it and went international.”
Since then, P-X-P also done ASL interpretation for the league’s Winter Classic, its Stadium Series games, and the All-Star Game, in the process doing some training in ASL applications for the league as well. A P-X-P interpreter will sign the commissioner’s pre-Stanley Cup Finals speech again this year, as well as the national anthem and other pre-match events.
P-X-P interpreters appear on-screen either on stage with speakers or in picture-in-picture inserts. That accomplishes two things, says Christianson: it gets the ASL translation across in real time (the American Sign Language University stipulates an ASL signing rate of 110-130 words per minute) while also putting the interpreter onscreen as the face of the Deaf community at large.
“I think a lot of times we focus solely on accessibility that we forget to include the Deaf community and make them a part and recognize that they’re a vital part of the fanbase of sports,” he says.
The ultimate goal, says Christianson, is to sign a game in progress, including color and play-by-play commentary, something he says P-X-P and the NHL have been building toward.
“What we have with the NHL is unique on so many levels,” he explains, “but what I really appreciate is that they listen rather than our being told, ‘Hey, this is what we’re going to do.’ We’ve been building this and going to NHL headquarters, meeting the staff, having Jason present in American Sign Language. For a lot of [the staff], that was the first time that they’d ever met a deaf person. You could feel it — it was palpable, their realizing, here’s a brilliant deaf individual who just unveiled how inaccessible sports is.
“It would be a huge moment for the Deaf community,” Christianson continues, “as well as for me professionally and personally to do play-by-play and interpret color commentary. That has never been done before, and we’re working toward that. There’ll be bumps and hiccups, but it’s definitely doable.”
Signing Sports Jargon
Most languages are dynamic; they have to be to accommodate the evolution of the world they seek to describe. That’s true of ASL as it moves deeper into broadcast sports and especially as more athletes are wired for sound, vastly increasing the amount of audio to be interpreted. For instance, is there an ASL sign for “hat trick”?
“That’s a great question,” Christianson laughs. “That’s where extensive preparation comes in. We hire deaf consultants that are experts in specific sports to train me in making sure I know the correct terminology. There are a lot of times, though, that an English word is idiomatic and doesn’t have a designated sign in American Sign Language. Sometimes, one word in English could be four or five signs in ASL to get the point across.”
Although closed captioning is mandatory in broadcasting — the 1996 Telecommunications Act required all televisions to be equipped to decode captions — ASL interpretation isn’t, a situation the folks at P-X-P are hoping to help change. However, Christianson adds, “We want that to be more of a requirement rather than just a legal formality, or let’s not get sued. We want more-thoughtful design when it comes to accessibility, inclusion, and belonging.”
It was, in fact, litigation that impelled sports stadiums and arenas to begin integrating captioning into signage systems. In 2008, in the wake of a suit filed under the Americans With Disabilities Act, a federal judge ruled that the then-Washington Redskins (now the Commanders) had 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. Captioning systems have since been adopted by most major-league and high-profile college stadiums and arenas, typically through dedicated portions of main scoreboards or as part of balcony fascia LED boards.
Heard Around the World
The Deaf community’s involvement in sports is extensive. The Deaflympics, also known as the Deaflympiad, are a series of IOC-sanctioned events that began in 1924 and take place every four years, with a Deaflympic Winter Games added in 1949. Hearing aids, cochlear implants, and other devices are not allowed to be used in competition. Officiating is also different: football referees wave a flag instead of blowing a whistle; on the track, races are started by using a light instead of a starter pistol. It is also customary for spectators not to cheer or clap but instead to wave with both hands, the deaf form of applause.
In the UK, England Deaf Football was launched in June 2003 at Old Trafford, Manchester United FC. Since its launch, EDF and the Deaf Football community have overseen more than a hundred Deaf matches nationally. In 2019, the group added youth competitions.
Like other accommodations broadcast sports have made over the years, ASL signing has a cost, but, says Christianson, it should be looked at as an investment, one with a clear ROI.
“I think that, when you build accessibility for one population, it benefits everyone,” he says, citing how texting was originally developed as a means of communication for deaf users. “This is another example of, when you invest in something, you actually generate more fans. It far outweighs the expense.”