Gallaudet University — named for Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, who helped create American Sign Language — was the first institution of higher education for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. And like any good American institution of higher education, it has a football team — except players and coaches communicate via sign language and the vibrations of an enormous bass drum. In The AtlanticMatthew Davis takes us to Gallaudet’s homecoming game (they won!), and unpacks the tensions that arise when a school tries to cater to deaf and mainstream students, as Gallaudet increasingly has to do.

In 2000, hearing students were admitted for the first time. Today, a rising percentage of Gallaudet’s students come from mainstream backgrounds, a percentage that likely needs to keep rising in order for the school to survive.

This is not without controversy, especially as it relates to students with cochlear implants, students like Reds. Cochlear implantation is an invasive surgery that places an implant into the cochlea, the spiral within the inner ear that contains the primary organ for hearing. A processor close to the outer ear sends electronic sounds to the cochlear implant, which directly stimulates the hearing nerve. What you think of this surgery depends, in part, on how you view deafness—as an identity trait or a problem to be solved. Many in the Gallaudet community see deafness as an identity trait, and they see American Sign Language as the primary expression of that identity. So do some in the hearing community. One hearing mother of a player on the football team told me she never considered implanting her son because it would be like changing his race. The argument, then, of who is deaf and how this deafness is expressed cuts to the core of language, identity, and biology and has deeply affected the Gallaudet community.

In the end, though, football brings them together — a quintessentially American form of bonding.

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