Beck: Hi Jim. Nice to meet you.
Lombardo: Thanks Doug, nice to meet you too.
Beck: Jim, I heard through the grapevine you had a lot to do with the NFL and the hearing protection they use. I know ABCs 20/20 did a story on this with you some 8 or 9 years ago too? I was hoping youd tell us a little about the NFL and their use of hearing protection?
Lombardo: Sure Doug. The 20/20 story actually had to do with how the hometown crowd and the noise they generate might impact the homefield advantage. It was sort of brief, but pretty interesting. Anyway, I was at a game in 1990 between the Bears and the Vikings. The outcome was indeed impacted by the crowd noise, and it was apparent that the noise generated by the Chicago crowd did impact the game for the homefield advantage. The Vikings could not get plays off as they planned because the crowd noise was able to, and certainly appeared to, mask out the sounds on the playing field, its an amazing thing to witness.
Beck: I cannot recall ever reading anything scientific on crowd noise and its impact on the players or the game. Howd you get up to speed on this topic?
Lombardo: Well great question. I searched and researched and found just about nothing! Of course, as an audiologist, I have an extensive background regarding noise, speech perception in noise, hearing loss and hearing protection devices and related topics, but I couldnt find anything specific to this topic. So I started thinking about noise protection, and how the NFL players might better hear the field sounds while protecting their hearing, and I sent a note to the head coach of the Green Bay Packers, Mr. Infante. I told him I had an idea and thought it might be worth discussing He asked me to come up and speak with him, and I did. He recognized right away that anything we might do could give his players an unfair advantage and he said we couldnt proceed without going through the NFL Rules Committee, which is what we did. The Rules committee asked me to visit with them, and they asked what I needed to get this going. And thats how it started.
Beck: Did you have a fairly good idea as to what hearing protection system you might use?
Lombardo: I had a few ideas, but I hadnt nailed it down at that time. I wanted to learn as much as I could about the problem and the unique situations involved, and I didnt wanna offer a specific solution ''till I knew everything I could. I wanted to know the dB levels at the various locations on the field, the spectrum of the noise, and whatever else I could learn about the composition of the noise. Of course, I also needed to understand the specific needs of the defensive and the offensive players.
Beck: And if I recall, you were working with the New Orleans Saints?
Lombardo: Yes, I did I spent some two years with them. I went to the games and measured sound, investigated the noise characteristics and developed a model that really helped me and the NFL, better understand the issues and the possible solutions. The issues are very complicated, and the dynamics are staggering. Nonetheless, I finally concluded the ER-15s were probably the best way to go, and we had to modify those to meet our needs.
Beck: Ive used those myself many times, and they do help me understand speech in noise, without too much total sound attenuation.
Lombardo: Exactly. We needed to make sure we could reduce the sounds while allowing the players voices to come through. We also had to make sure that the system we selected fit comfortably under the helmets and did the job. The offensive players and the tight ends are the main targets for us, and they really need to hear pretty well to get the plan, and avoid illegal procedure calls, while the defensive guys get along pretty well visually.
Beck: What kind of problems did you run into with compliance? Were the players willing to take the ER-15s in and out as needed? Did they wear them willingly during the games?
Lombardo: That varied. For some people, getting them in and out of their ears is easy, others struggle with it. So it actually took a lot of training and hand holding, but many wore them, and it was voluntary. But it was really hard for the trainers to manage the noise protection as the players change, they move all over the nation, and they change players every season too, so the training was on-going. But then again, some players told us they wore their hearing protection while they were on planes, and while they were exposed to other noises too, so the compliance was surprisingly high on some occasions for some individuals.
Beck: What about the typical overall SPL during an NFL game?
Lombardo: The dBA scale often exceeded 115 to 120 dB, and the roar of the crowd
sounds like an enormously intense hissing noise, when youre down on the field. Often the quaterterbacks would tell us their calls were mixing in with the crowd noise, and we worked them to offer alternatives for them to allow maximal audible communication. For example, using lower frequency signals to make them more audible. Maybe instead of saying 19 as an audible, we might suggest they say 1 9er. It takes the same time to say, but its easier to perceive.
Beck: Which stadiums had the worst noise?
Lombardo: The worst stadiums, oddly enough, are not the domed stadiums. Rather, the worst are two-tiered, or stacked stadiums. Riverfront Stadium and the old Browns Stadium were pretty bad. The Seattle Dome and Mile-High Stadium are pretty bad too. Basically, the ones that designed for football those are usually the worst. The shape of the stadium acts like a funnel and the noise is all pointed towards the playing field.
Beck: And then some stadiums have pretty soft, or absorbent ceilings, so thats probably useful for damping?
Lombardo: Yes, thats right. For example, Minnesotas stadium and New Orleans too, they have soft ceilings, and that helps a bit. Of course as my friend Jim Mora, head coach of the Saints at the time, said, if you really wanna reduce the noise, just lose the first seven games and thatll take care of it!
Beck: Thatll do it for sure!
Lombardo: Another issue was the amount of noise some of the players exposed themselves to prior to the game. I remember seeing some guys using Walkman units in the locker room, and they listened very loud, which absolutely caused some temporary threshold shifts (TTS). I heard the music leaking out of their headphones, and I was just walking by and I heard it comfortably loud! So obviously, some the players went into the game with TTSs that they had induced themselves, and then they would go onto the stadium field, with exposure to additionally phenomenally loud soundand of course they could barely, if at all, hear the quarterbacks count.
Beck: So you had to teach the coaches and the trainers about TTS and about noise reduction too?
Lombardo: Yes, and about fatigue from noise. I think an enormous issue for many of us, not just NFL players is that when you listen to lots of loud noise for long periods of time, its fatiguing. In fact I have a personal theory that jet lag has quite a lot to do with auditory fatigue.
Beck: Yes, I agree. I think listening to jet engines for hours and hours tends to wear you out and make you lethargic. Sounds like a great study for a grad student who needs to build up their frequent flyer miles. Jim, youve had an amazing experience, and Im grateful for you sharing your experience with us.
Lombardo: Thanks Doug. It was a great experience, and some of it is still ongoing. Im glad I was able to participate and help the NFL, and thanks for your time too.
To contact Jim Lombardo please send e-mail to:
Special thanks to Tony Lombardo at ESCO.
Beck: Hi Jim. Nice to meet you.