Listen up, if you can still hear me. A recent New York Times article, “Ground-Shaking Noise Rocks N.F.L., and Eardrums Take Big Hit,” documents something that we already know about professional football games: They are extremely loud.
The crowds themselves are huge, of course, but the elevated noise levels aren’t entirely the natural result of the fans’ aroused enthusiasm for their teams. In fact, crowds are encouraged to yell ever louder by the league, by the franchises, and by groups of fans organized around the principle that loud is better.
For example, Terrorhead Returns, a club that supports the Kansas City Chiefs, sponsored a “scream-a-thon” recently during a game against the Oakland Raiders and pumped the crowd up to a din that reached 137.5 decibels, a Guinness world record for the loudest crowd roar in an outdoor stadium.
The Seattle Seahawks’ version of Terrorhead Returns is a group called The 12th Man, which asserts that Seattle’s fans are the loudest in the NFL. The club portrays its claim to the previous record decibel mark by plotting it along a scale that rates ordinary conversation at 50 decibels. The 12th Man’s previous record reached 136.6 decibels, registering between “Jet Takeoff” and “Aircraft Carrier Flight Deck,” which is just below “Eardrum Rupture,” at 150 decibels.
But these levels on the scale are already well above “Hearing Damage” at 90 decibels and “Serious Hearing Damage” at 100. Hearing experts say the damage actually starts at 85.
Why do the fans want to make so much noise? The 12th Man aspires to an active role in the game itself, implying on its website that the “ear shattering noise” interferes with opponents’ signal calling and contributes to an average of 2.36 false starts per game.
But apart from audiologists and a few parents and curmudgeons, nobody seems very concerned about the extreme noise in NFL stadiums. An appeal to old-fashioned sportsmanship probably won’t achieve much traction among modern football fans. And while cumulative, irreversible hearing loss is clearly occurring, its progress is gradual and may not manifest itself for decades.
To be fair, noise-induced hearing loss is related to the length of exposure to levels above about 85 decibels. Attending a football game or two is unlikely to cause much long-term damage.
But I started thinking about this issue a decade ago, when I was driven from a movie theatre by a soundtrack so loud that it resonated in my chest cavity. At about the same time, my own ancient mother was becoming increasingly isolated by her failing ability to hear.
The fact is, we live in a ubiquitously noisy society. Any damage caused by attending a football game or two is added to the damage that occurs at rock concerts, movie theaters, boisterous bars and loud restaurants, or as the result of the habitual use of ear buds.
In this noisy environment, we shouldn’t be particularly surprised by a finding from the Journal of the American Medical Association, as reported in the New York Times in 2011: the number of teenagers with some level of hearing loss has increased 33 percent since 1994.
So, as cumulative brain damage accrues on the playing field, at noise levels this high cumulative and irreversible hearing damage is occurring among the fans in the stands, as well.
But this threat to our national ability to hear well later in life is insidious. As with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, smoking, heart disease, or climate change, the damage occurs in tiny increments and the bad results can take decades to materialize. Therefore, we do very little about it.
Meanwhile, the October 21 issue of The New Yorker features a poignant cartoon: A couple is dining in a crowded restaurant. The server approaches their table and asks: “Can I get you any more deafening loudness?”
But in modern America, the server’s question is the straight line; the punch line is, of course, “Huh?”