Cowboys Stadium closed captioner both an employee and fan
Brad Loper/Staff Photographer
Closed captioner Lisa Davis reviews a script several hours before the Dallas Cowboys prepare to face the New York Giants. On game days, she's usually at the stadium for seven to eight hours.
ARLINGTON — Roger Emrich is the public address voice for most fans at Dallas Cowboys home games. But for a certain segment of the crowd — particularly those with hearing loss — Lisa Davis is the team’s true voice.
A Cowboys fan since high school and closed captioner at Cowboys Stadium, Davis spends every home game in Arlington trying keep up pace with the action. Fingers flying at an average of 200 or more words per minute, she captions the pregame announcements and events, PA announcements during the game, halftime entertainment and postgame interviews.
In the simplest terms, Davis, 39, is paid to go to Cowboys games and type exactly what she hears. The job is often trickier than it sounds, she said, but just as fun as any fan might imagine. And a dream come true when she received the news by phone that she was hired.
“I hung up and probably screamed as loud as I could,” Davis said. “It was like hitting the football fan lottery.”
Davis — an independent contractor — started captioning Cowboys coaches’ shows for TV in 2006. And since Cowboys Stadium opened in 2009, Davis has captioned the Super Bowl, boxing matches, rodeos and more. Her typing appears on handheld devices available at the stadium and some video screens there.
Outside the sports world, she has captioned church services and government contractor meetings, cooking shows and college algebra classes, Martha Stewart programs and a presidential speech.
However it’s her work for one of the world’s most-famous sports teams that has given her a degree of fame inside her industry. A feature story in the May Journal of Court Reporting profiled Davis along with other sports specialists.
Davis said she received some praise from inside that community for her work at Super Bowl XLV. Nervous about the highest-profile assignment of her career, Davis said she counted on the national anthem as perhaps the only moment to catch her breath that day in February.
Instead, pop star Christina Aguilera flubbed the words and left Davis scrambling to keep up with the botched version. Davis remembers her typing screeching to a halt as she thought to herself: “That’s not how it goes.”
Davis never considered any option other than typing it just as Aguilera sang it.
Captioners are trained not to clean up language.
“They get what the hearing crowd gets,” she said about her audience. “They don’t want special favors. They don’t want to be edited. They don’t want to be babied.”
Esther Kelly, a hearing-loss resource specialist for the Deaf Action Center in Dallas, said that kind of passion is why she has hired Davis for 15 years.
“She cares not just about the job but about the people that need the captioning,” Kelly said. “She’s wholehearted for the people.”
The only time Davis turned down a major event at Cowboys Stadium was when a college football game conflicted with a gathering sponsored by hearing implant maker Cochlear.
She said her work with Cochlear and the Deaf Action Center are the few jobs that generate the same kind of passion she has for the Cowboys.
She never expected her sports fandom to contribute to her career path while growing up in the Dallas area and graduating from Wylie High School. Davis’ father worked for the Justice Department, so she imagined herself as an undercover narcotics officer or FBI agent.
Her father wasn’t supportive. “No daughter of his was going to get shot at,” Davis said.
Instead, he talked her into court reporting. It’s a good-paying career that would allow her to keep a foot in the criminal justice system, only without the gunplay. Davis said captioners are paid about $45 to $200 per hour depending on the type of work.
After years of schooling and practice, Davis worked on just one trial and was bored and didn’t want to deal with the daily horrors at the courthouse.
The Americans with Disabilities Act showed her a different way to make a living. That federal law boosted demand for captioning in classrooms and at business meetings, conferences and conventions. The Federal Communications Commission also started phasing in requirements for closed captioning of all new programming on television.
Scott Purcel, the Cowboys’ director of broadcasting, said there was greater demand for captioning but the “quality wasn’t always what I was expecting.” As the father of a hearing-impaired 8-year-old, Purcel is particularly attuned to captioning and the gap between the good and bad.
He said he’d only use her or someone she’d recommend at Cowboys Stadium.
“I brag when I go to other stadiums about having a better captioner,” he said.
Davis’ work is ultimately a serious job. She sits in an area adjacent to the stadium’s TV control room and watches every play on a bank of monitors. Although she’s just a few yards from a coveted view of the field, Davis can’t stray from her stenography machine.
As PA announcer Emrich calls out downs, players and penalties, Davis types the words verbatim — just as she does his announcements of stadium contests and entertainment. A game for her is often a seven- or eight-hour day, starting long before kickoff and finishing with any post-game activities.
Despite the concentration required, she still finds plenty of time to unleash her inner fan. The long-stated rule against cheering in the press box just down the hall doesn’t apply to her little piece of the stadium.
Just like a Cowboys homer in front of a TV set, she roots for players, claps, urges fans to get loud and groans when things go wrong.
“OK, we need halftime right now,” she said as the Cowboys led the New York Giants by just two points at the Dec. 11 home game. “I don’t want to see that again.”
Not many of her jobs give her the chance to cheer.
While still “wet behind the ears,” Davis captioned some breaking-news coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing for WFAA-TV (Channel 8). She did similar work for news coverage of the 9/11 attacks.
Jobs like that are not only emotional but pose a professional challenge.
Moments after the attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, Davis said her boss told her to stick with one spelling of Murrah until someone could call and determine what was correct. She said she had the same problem with captioning tornado warnings and other storms in Oklahoma, where many cities have Indian names that are difficult to figure out phonetically.
“You have to think how it’s spelled as it’s being pronounced,” she said.
But in some cases, different combinations of keystrokes might spit out a word or spelling that’s unexpected. The stenography machine captioners use doesn’t include every character, so some letters are created by multiple keystrokes. On top of that, captioners create their own shortcuts for names and terminology that might come up.
In an instant and under pressure, they’ll often have to work through what’s essentially two layers of coding to make sure the words appear precisely as they were said.
Davis said one of the few things that made her throw up her hands in frustration was working on a local youth music show. That was soon after rapper Snoop Dogg popularized the slang language that replaced the endings of words with “izzle,” creating a sort of hip-hop Pig Latin.
Mid-tempo country songs tend to be far easier to caption than bouncy rap or dance numbers. Davis said that was nothing, though, compared to trying to caption an auction — an attempt that wasn’t entirely successful.
Davis figures that technology — such as Apple’s Siri voice-recognition feature — will one day catch up with her profession.
“Technology is advancing every minute so I know that eventually, something’s going to happen somewhere,” Davis said. “But I also know that it’s also not near” professional standards of recognition.There are still problems, she said, with filtering out crowd noise and nearby voices and accounting for accents and even changes in pronunciation because of a cold.
In a real-life version of John Henry’s battle against a steam-powered hammer, Davis pitted herself against voice-recognition software. Viewers could see her work and the computer’s work projected side-by-side.
“We went to head to head, and I’m happy to say I kicked its butt all over the screen,” she said.
To hit speeds of 200 to 400 words per minute, captioners create shortcuts for common names and terms. Cowboys Stadium captioner Lisa Davis has an extensive library tailored for her work there. Some require unusual spellings to avoid conflicting with existing shortcuts. Here are a few of those:
TOEM TOEM = Tony Romo
WAS NAS = Akwasi Owusu-Ansah (note: Recently waived)
LOERJ = Line of scrimmage
QB = Quarterback
LAUB = Linebacker
KAUB = Cornerback
RAUB = Running back