The Great American Eclipse mesmerized the country last month, as millions of people migrated toward the path of “totality” — which of course included Kansas City — and donned specially designed goggles so they could safely view this celestial spectacle.
Many of those same people will file into NFL stadiums to put their sense of hearing through a similar test of endurance. Only this time, few will take the necessary precautions to protect their ears, which will be subjected to excruciating and dangerous decibel levels. Only a handful of fans will don earplugs, even though studies have shown repeatedly that exposure to such high decibel levels, even for a few seconds, can permanently damage one’s hearing.
Every year at sporting events, outdoor concerts, bars and in solitary moments when ear buds or headphones are the culprits, millions of people are willfully harming their hearing. The World Health Organization has reported that 1.1 billion young people and adults worldwide are at risk of hearing loss because of this, yet the urgency never seems to materialize. This is doubly frustrating for me, as a hearing scientist, because the solution is painfully simple: Wear earplugs.
We know a thing or two about this in Kansas City. Many fans will relish that moment on September 29, 2014, when we shattered the world record for crowd noise — 142.2 decibels, well beyond our threshold for pain — to earn a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for the loudest sports stadium. (We also throttled the New England Patriots 41-14 that day.)
Then there was that time in 1990 at Arrowhead in a game against Denver when an official threatened to penalize the Chiefs if the fans didn’t stop screaming at John Elway and his Broncos. He couldn’t communicate with his players.
How many of you who were at that game are now fitted for hearing aids? If so, you’re one of the 36 million Americans — 1 in 10 — who, like me, need hearing health care today.
One of the most perplexing things in my profession is that of our five senses, hearing is the only one people intentionally and knowingly abuse. Perhaps it’s because hearing loss won’t kill you and is shrugged off as a normal part of aging. However, this passive approach to hearing health gets it wrong, as too many people who dismiss the dangers are now saddled with a diminished quality of life or other health issues such as anxiety or depression.
Interestingly, though, we’re very much aware of the problem. A national survey of U.S. adults this year by the American Speech-Language Hearing Association found Americans are concerned that exposure to such loud noises in leisure settings has or will harm their hearing. Loud venues are also diminishing enjoyment, the survey reports. So we don’t like having our eardrums battle-tested. It harms our hearing, yet Americans in general aren’t doing much about it.
I don’t raise this issue as a scold but rather as a devout sports fan. I’ve cheered the Chiefs for three decades and attend games at Arrowhead every season. (In fact, I actually help to screen the hearing of Chiefs players at their practice facilities before the season begins.) I’m also an avid KU fan and know Allen Fieldhouse as well as my living room.
I understand the vital role a crowd can play — the camaraderie and even the advantage we fans can bring to a home field or home court. Just as I wouldn’t tell those millions of eclipse-watchers to shut themselves in a dark room until it passes, I wouldn’t tell fans not to be, well, fans. I scream, too.
But as an audiologist, it would be malpractice not to acknowledge the health implications of these ear-splitting events. Whether at Chiefs games or KU games, I wear earplugs and ask that my children and grandchildren do as well. It’s a simple and painless solution. Doing so doesn’t diminish the game-day experience. Rather, it enhances it.
And what better place to model a smarter approach to fandom than in Kansas City, home to the best fans in the NFL?
John Ferraro is the Carolyn Doughty-Margaret Kemp Chair of the Hearing and Speech Department at the University of Kansas Medical Center. He is also a member and fellow with the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.