The title of The Replacements refers to the “scabs” who cross the picket lines of an NFL player strike, met with derision on the part of the seemingly greedy football players and skeptical fans. To come up with a team that will play under such circumstances, the owner gives coach Jimmy McGinty carte blanch to recruit anyone he wants. McGinty comes up with a list of players he’s had his eye on, but who have been excluded from NFL play for various reasons; an overweight sumo wrestler, players with criminal backgrounds or little schooling to speak of, people of other ethnic backgrounds… and a deaf guy, Brian Murphy. (It’s a common movie trope that a group is regarded as ragtag and destined for failure if it includes a disabled person.)
Murphy comes as a surprise to some of the assistant coaches when he responds in sign language during the first practice:
Pilachowski: Hey Jimmy, my tight end is… deaf.
Jimmy McGinty: Yeah, I know.
Pilachowski: Well Jimmy, how am I gonna coach a deaf man?
Jimmy McGinty: Oh, you don’t need to. Brian Murphy would’ve gone in the first round 5 years ago if he hadn’t been born deaf. Played his college ball right here in D.C., Gallaudet.
Pilachowski: But Jimmy, I need to communicate with him and how…?
Jimmy McGinty: Learn to sign. You know…
[does some sign language]
Pilachowski: Oh, horseshit!
Jimmy McGinty: Look at it this way; he’ll never be called offsides on an audible.
Pilachowski does indeed learn some pidgin sign language by the end of the movie, but no one employs it unless Murphy is central to the scene; things aren’t translated for him as a matter of course. No interpreters or other adaptations for Murphy’s disability are ever seen, nor does he ever interrupt to ask what was said. Indeed, in a jailhouse dance scene, Murphy follows the music and impromptu choreography with no apparent trouble. In a later scene, he even talks to a girl in a bar in ASL, and is surprised when she answers back in sign… to apparently promise sexual favors.
Though hand signals in football have long been used by hearing players as well as deaf to communicate across distances, it was Gallaudet Bison quarterback Paul Hubbard who invented the football huddle in 1894 to keep his signed messages private. Hearing players quickly appropriated the idea. The Bison also use a giant drum to signal the “huts” to the team through the vibrations, but that adaptation was not seen in the movie and has not caught on outside of Gallaudet games.
A word about the “regular” football players as portrayed in this film, though; they are perceived as being greedy for demanding an exorbitant salary. However, recent research indicates that due to the enormous physical stresses of being a pro football player, they are disproportionately likely to suffer a severe form of brain damage that causes early onset of severe dementia. The NFL does not cover the exorbitant costs of long term care for former football players with it, who tend to die young, penniless, and sometimes at their own hands as a result. We’re not sure millions of dollars is really enough to compensate for that.