Out of Bounds: Eagles, Bills are showing what makes sports great

Growing up visiting my relatives in upstate New York during the summer, we would frequently go see the Auburn Doubledays — the local minor league baseball team. Sitting in the bleachers at those games, I’d often see the same little boy wearing noise reduction ear mufflers at every game. 

I didn’t understand it at the time. I had only ever seen construction workers with power tools wear those before. But when I recently learned that the Philadelphia Eagles opened up a sensory suite at Lincoln Financial Field for fans with sensory challenges and their families, I thought of that boy. 

The suite is essentially geared toward young fans with sensory processing disorders like autism or PTSD. It’s equipped with noise canceling headphones, verbal cue cards, fidget tools, weighted lap pads and much more. Beyond that, Eagles and Lincoln Financial Field employees have been trained to “recognize guests with sensory needs and … quell sensory overload situations.” 

The Eagles aren’t the only NFL team to take this step. At the Buffalo Bills’ New Era Field, fans can rent sensory inclusion bags free of charge from any Guest Services booth, making the stadium a “certified Sensory Inclusive space” this season. The bags contain materials similar to those at Lincoln Financial Field. 

Sports accessibility goes beyond simply having handicap-accessible seating in stadiums. There are families all over the country with children or adults living with sensory challenges. These new accommodations allow those people and their families to experience the joy of going to a sports game with less strain.

It should be celebrated that NFL teams are making strides toward a more inclusive game experience while also normalizing these needs. All other sports teams should take note. 

Part of why billions of people across the world enjoy being a fan and going to games is that it provides a sense of community and aids social integration. Studies have found that suicide rates temporarily dip every year around Super Bowl Sunday and the final game of the World Series. These are times when people typically gather to watch games and feel a sense of belonging. 

Sports are often seen as a common ground for everyone. I’ve even heard the phrase “everyone speaks ball.” But sports, often known as the one thing that unites the world, can be ostracizing. Even beyond the challenge of loud stadiums that can be overwhelming for people with autism, not everyone feels welcome in the sports community. 

Let’s talk about a more surface level topic. When I first transferred to USC, I struggled to find people to go to football games with. I remember feeling so friendless knowing that everyone else was at the game in groups, and I didn’t even have someone to walk with me to the stadium. I felt like I couldn’t go to the Coliseum and sit in the student section by myself, and I know I’m not the only one who has ever felt that way. 

Too many times, I’ve watched people get embarrassed when someone quizzes them on their sports knowledge and they get labelled as being “not a true fan” when they fail. For one thing, you don’t have to know everything to be a fan and a part of the community. Rather than shaming people for what they don’t know, let’s instead make them excited about how cool sports can be. For example, if you find out that someone doesn’t know who Matt Barkley is, don’t say, “What? You’ve never heard of him?” Say something like, “Oh you’ve gotta look him up some time, he’s awesome!”

I’ve strayed a bit from my opening thoughts on the progressive new things the Eagles and Bills are doing, but my point is that sports can be inaccessible or overwhelming to some. To others, the sports community can simply be intimidating. Sports seem very inclusive on the surface, and in general they are — but they can also feel isolating when you’re on the outside. 

As college students, we don’t necessarily have the means to help design sensory suites at major stadiums, but there are still things we can do to welcome others into the sports community.

If you mention an upcoming USC game to an acquaintance in your class and they seem a bit awkward about it, encourage them to come with you and your friends. I know if someone had done that for me three years ago, it would have meant the world. If you mention the recent Dodgers loss to someone and they seem confused, they might not follow baseball or might not have grown up in a family that follows sports at all. Rather than shaming them, even unintentionally, briefly fill them in in a way that’s not condescending. 

Monumental steps like Sensory Inclusive stadiums are awesome, but even modest changes can make a difference. We can make sports inclusive in more ways than just how we equip stadiums. From now on — and especially this football season — let’s all make an effort, no matter how small, to welcome everyone into the special community that is the sports world. 

Jill Burke is a senior writing about sports in relation to current issues. Her column, “Out of Bounds,” runs every other Friday.