Health

Why being the 'world's loudest stadium' is a bad idea

Sep. 16, 2013 at 9:14 AM ET

Seattle Seahawks fans cheer
Elaine Thompson / AP
Seattle Seahawks fans cheer during a preseason game on Aug. 17, 2013 in Seattle. Fans will compete Sunday to become the "world's loudest stadium."

Update: The Seattle Seahawks set the Guinness World Record for crowd noise during Sunday's game against rival San Francisco 49ers. The Seahawks fans reached a decibel level of 131.9 during the nationally televised game, roaring by the previous record of 131.7 decibels, set by fans at a 2011 soccer match in Istanbul, Turkey. And the Seahawks beat the 49ers 3-29. 

Original: 
Seattle Seahawks fans like to boast that theirs is the noisiest stadium in the world. On Sunday, they'll get their chance to prove it: A Guinness World Records representative will be at CenturyLink to measure the decibel level of Seahawks fans as their team plays rivals San Francisco 49ers. It's the end result of a showdown with the Kansas City Chiefs, who have also long claimed bragging rights for their Arrowhead Stadium as the world's loudest sports facility. 

While the goal of a roaring crowd may be about whipping fans into a greater frenzy and "intimidating" the opposing teams and players, as a KC Chiefs Facebook fan page claims, it's not only a bad idea for fans' hearing -- it doesn't really help the home team, experts say. 

Seattle is going to have to beat the current world record of 131.76 decibels, set by fans at a 2011 soccer match in Istanbul, Turkey. But if Seahawks fans are named World's Loudest on Sunday -- what, even, is the point? Decades of research have looked at the effect of a noisy crowd on athletic performance and there's never been any conclusive, scientific evidence that a boisterous crowd does indeed help the home team win, social and sport psychologists say. 

"So the Seattle Seahawks are trying for this crowd record -- is that going to help their players win or play better? I would put a big question mark on that," says Robert Weinberg, who specializes in sport psychology at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. "Maybe it will; maybe it won’t. That’s what the research would say." 

A lot of fans think that just because there is a home court advantage, "or you have loud, vociferous fans, it’s going to help your team perform better," Weinberg says. "That’s not necessarily – it can be – but it’s not necessarily the case."

Besides that -- what about your poor ears?

What it is most certainly doing is damaging the hearing of every person in attendance. People don’t recognize how much damage they can do to their hearing, says Alison Grimes, an assistant clinical professor of head/neck surgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, and director of audiology at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.

“People will say, ‘Oh, it was just for 10 minutes,’” Grimes says. “And what I tell my patients is that noise is cumulative over the lifetime. Each time you use a chain saw or ride a motorcycle or go to a stadium to make the sound meter reach the top, it accumulates."

Before the Sunday game, every Seattle fan should, at the very least, buy the over-the-counter ear plugs, says Dr. Anil Lalwani, professor and vice chair for research, director of the division of otology, neurotology and skull base surgery at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center. “Those will lower the sound level by about 15 to 20 decibels. Wearing those with headphones can bring it down by a total of 40 decibels.”

The thing to keep in mind is that there is a reciprocal relationship between the intensity of the sound and the duration you can be exposed to it, Grimes said.

“If you’re literally talking about 130 decibels – nobody should ever be exposed to that,” Grimes said. “There isn’t a safe amount of time for 130 decibels. It’s physically painful as well as acoustically damaging.”

Remember, “hair cells in your ear don’t grow back. There is no Rogaine for your inner ear," warns Grimes. "While hearing aids work really well, there is no substitute for natural hearing.”

That's why parents should be especially careful about bringing their children to the Sunday game or any other loud stadium without ear protection. Already, tens of millions of kids ages 12 to 19 are showing signs of hearing loss -- nearly one in 5 -- largely because of portable music devices. Hours in a very loud environment -- a sports event or rock concert -- can create a cumulative effect on fragile ears, experts say.  

Not everyone’s ears will be hurt the same amount. Some may leave the game unscathed, while others may experience significant hearing loss, Lalwani said.

If the noise is sustained at 130 decibels or louder, “there are going to be some unhappy people leaving that stadium,” Lalwani said. “They may have ringing in their ears, a loss of clarity for a day or so – some may have permanent [damage].”

So while the Seahawks and Chiefs fans battle it out for the loudest stadium title during the 2013 season, they should keep in mind that winning that title might not help them clinch the real championship prize. 

In the end, while a loud environment can increase physical arousal -- psychologically speaking, that means a player might be more alert and very reactive to external stimulation -- increased physical arousal has also been shown to negatively effect fine motor skills - like the skills a quarterback might depend on, Weinberg says. (That's one of the reasons behind the hush at golf tournaments as the players try to sink a six-foot putt.) 

And what about the impact of all that noise on people’s emotional and physical well-being? Loud noises can make people irritable, says Lalwani. So, if the Seahawks lose the game against San Francisco and fail to clinch the Guinness record, there may be some very cranky Seattle fans Sunday night. 

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