It’s not just that DK Metcalf is learning American Sign Language and using it on a national stage — it’s that, even as a discernible novice, he’s doing it with a level of finesse that shows he just gets it.
“He has the swag with it. And that’s half the battle sometimes with signing,” said Sean Forbes, one of the deaf rappers who broke down barriers at the Super Bowl halftime show two years ago with Eminem, Snoop Dogg and other hip-hop stars. “You have to have the nuances, the vibes, the way that your hands move and flow has to be there. … He had the rhythm to it, where most beginning signers would be a little more choppy.”
Metcalf, the Seattle Seahawks wide receiver, introduced a twist to the typical NFL touchdown celebration this season, signing one-liners in the end zone in recent games against the Los Angeles Rams and Dallas Cowboys. He’s quipped that the practice could help him avoid fines for trash-talking — but there’s much more to it. In the same way the former All-Pro studies opposing defenses, Metcalf meets Tuesdays with a coach to sharpen his signing skills.
DK and the Seahawks get on the board first
— NFL (@NFL) November 19, 2023
The time he’s putting in is noticeable. This doesn’t appear to be the work of someone who is just Googling how to say specific phrases — a familiar situation for any beginner foreign language learner — said Dr. Kim Kurz, a professor at RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf.
Forbes just wanted to know more about the why and the how of it all, speculating that Metcalf is working with somebody to hone his style.
“All of us have those questions, but at the same time, all of us are like, ‘F— yeah!’”
Well, here are the answers.
Metcalf, whose signing first came to light last month, took an ASL summer class in college and restarted learning the language at the beginning of this season. He meets via video call once a week with Darrell Utley, a Tennessee-based instructor Metcalf connected with through his agency.
Utley said he didn’t know Metcalf was an NFL player when they first started lessons. He said in an email the former Pro Bowler is “an inquisitive and open-minded student” who’s “dedicated and committed to learning sign language.”
Metcalf, 25, said he started learning ASL as a way to “exercise his mind” and take it off football (he previously took acting classes for the same reason, and is also pursuing guitar). The trash-talking potential was a secondary thought.
But to the Deaf community, it’s more than just one popular athlete’s hobby. It’s a cause for celebration for some, and at least a conversation starter for others.
Kurz, who is deaf, said through an interpreter that Metcalf’s use of sign language has become a “hot topic.”
“Deaf people are honestly quite tired of others who just want to learn sign language for the sole purpose of learning foul language or curse signs,” Kurz explained, noting Metcalf hasn’t veered into that territory — so far. “We would much rather people actually show interest in learning ASL because they would like to communicate with deaf people, or want to learn about Deaf culture and Deaf community.”
Metcalf said he is enjoying “just shedding light on the ASL community, the Deaf community, to where more people are starting to learn ASL and starting to take heed to, ‘What is he going to sign next, or what is he signing?’”
Some have suggested referees, coaches and other players should just learn to sign as well, Kurz said. It’s a natural fit, as football already has sign language roots — including the creation of the huddle.
Dr. Joseph Hill, an RIT associate professor who researches Black Sign Language, also said some deaf people are wary “whenever someone learns a language from a linguistic minority for a self-serving reason.” That’s because of a deep history of hearing people using ASL “for their own gain” and not for the benefit of the Deaf community, Hill wrote in an email.
For that reason, Utley also said it’s important for people interested in learning ASL to get exposure through Deaf teachers “for authenticity” and to support Deaf businesses.
Forbes thinks Metcalf’s ASL zingers are “just brilliant” and not appropriation “at all,” although he wondered if a deaf athlete without Metcalf’s stature would feel empowered to deliver similar comments. He added: “What he is doing is really giving our language a spotlight — and being a little bit of a smart-ass about doing it.”
The first time Metcalf gained traction for using ASL, it flew somewhat under the radar. “44, my son,” he signed toward Rams cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon after besting him for a touchdown on Nov. 19.
But the second time, when he signed “standing on business” against the Cowboys last week, it took off.
“The community was just on fire with it (the second time), everybody’s just looking forward to seeing what more he does and what more other football players do,” Forbes said. “It further shows me and the community at large that sign language is just so cool.
“To be able to see that on a mainstream platform, in a professional sports league, speaks volumes.”
After his touchdown, DK Metcalf said “stand on business” in sign language 👀
— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) December 1, 2023
Metcalf took the idea to sign “standing on business” from teammate Boye Mafe, a linebacker who also knows ASL. Mafe signs “I love you” to the sky as part of his pregame ritual to honor his mother, who died in 2018.
The phrase Metcalf used is an amalgam of cultures, Hill noted — a recently popularized part of African American Vernacular English, which just like ASL has a unique structure, syntax and grammar that differs from English.
That smooth delivery is just “based on his personality,” Utley said, adding that the pair hadn’t prepared for the touchdown celebrations specifically. Utley was “surprised” Metcalf had pulled out his new skills on the field when he saw it on the news.
“Everyone has their own style and personality that shines through when they use sign language,” the instructor added.
Forbes said it’s refreshing to see Metcalf “do something cool with (ASL) and to make people’s heads kind of turn” when most people are spreading it through more traditional means, like teaching and interpretation. The ripple effect is already making its way to other sports.
It’s also just the latest in a string of moves made by those involved in football around Deaf inclusion. While ASL performers during the Super Bowl national anthem have been standard for years as part of a partnership with the National Association of the Deaf and deaf civil rights lawyer Alexis Kashar, Forbes’ appearance alongside fellow deaf rapper Wawa marked the first ASL performers at the halftime show. Last year, deaf performer Justina Miles signed Rihanna’s hits.
The league also recently launched a merchandise line featuring ASL.
Both Forbes and Kurz characterized the NFL as being at the forefront of inclusion when it comes to the Deaf community, but wondered if we could one day see broadcast components like an ASL reporter to take things to the next level.
It would also be a bonus if Metcalf could use his platform to bring attention to and educate people about the importance of learning sign language to communicate with deaf people, Kurz said.
Turns out, Metcalf feels similarly.
“I think it’s just great that I get to challenge myself to learn something new and just to bring light to a community who I didn’t know felt unseen or felt like they were being forgotten about,” Metcalf said.
What started as a pastime might have moved briefly into gimmick domain with the trash-talking possibilities for a player who’s ponied up about $100,000 in fines for personal conduct on the field. But for Metcalf, it remains serious.
“I’m trying to learn a new language, simply put.”
(Top photos: Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images and Steven Bisig / USA Today)