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On Second Thought

Can’t we do better for a national anthem?

The national anthem is played before a Bruins game at TD Garden.
The national anthem is played before a Bruins game at TD Garden.Charles Krupa/Associated Press

The NHL and NBA plan, with fingers crossed, to be back playing games by the start of August.

MLB, who knows? Maybe baseball owners and players soon will realize their bickering is a silly, obnoxious game of pickle, with the fan caught running back and forth between the two. At some point, fellas, the exhausted guy in the middle is just going to collapse on the basepath.

One thing we do know for sure is that if any teams get to play in the near future, it won’t be with anyone in the stands. What a perfect time to halt the tradition of foisting the current national anthem upon us and come up with something better.

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No fans will be allowed during these pandemic-era games. Sitting at home, we’re going to get glimpses on our TVs of empty arenas and their 15,000, 30,000, 60,000 or more vacant seats — a stark reminder of the bizarre sports world in which we’re all now forced to exist.

So in the middle of that nothingness, now play "The Star-Spangled Banner” only to hear it echo around the joint like a Corbett Canyon radio ad? Maybe toss in a military flyover for no one in attendance to hold in awe?

Even Francis Scott Key would beg to leave the building.

Keep in mind, a significant percentage of US broadcast entities, both TV and radio, stopped airing the anthem long ago, in the decades pre-COVID-19. They’ve been covering the couple of minutes with pre-production programming — coach’s thoughts, keys to the game — or words from their sponsors (rugged pickups of all colors, makes, and sizes).

Meanwhile, we’re all aware what a political hot potato the anthem has been, off and on, since quarterback/activist Colin Kaepernick began kneeling in silent protest in the 2016 NFL preseason. The issue promises to be more emotionally charged than ever now because of recent protests and demonstrations related to racial divides, inequity of justice, and police brutality, issues stitched into our flag for centuries.

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Colin Kaepernick's decision to kneel during the national anthem sparked a nationwide debate.
Colin Kaepernick's decision to kneel during the national anthem sparked a nationwide debate.Ezra Shaw/Photographer: Ezra Shaw/Getty Im

Kaepernick was right. He looks more justified by the hour, forcing, in part, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell recently to state that his league botched it when Kaepernick and others were told the field was not the place and the anthem not the moment for their grievances to be made public.

“We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of Black people,” Goodell said in a videotaped release. “We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest.”

A sharp U-turn from President Trump’s remark in 2017, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now!”

“The Star-Spangled Banner” was Key’s poetic ode to the flag holding up under the British shelling of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. It wasn’t officially recognized as the national anthem until March 3, 1931. The next day’s Globe noted the Senate’s approval in a one-paragraph short at the bottom of Page 1.

Over subsequent decades, it became universally adopted as the official starter to our sporting events, pro, college, and amateur. Land of the free, home of the brave . . . and play ball!

Originally set to a British tune (“To Anacreon in Heaven”) of the 18th century, it always has been an awkward, cumbersome piece of music. Some renditions can be inspirational. (Exhibit A: Jim Cornelison at the United Center in Chicago is tremendous performance art.) But too often performances land on the ear like so much hail scattering across a tin roof.

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Only some 8 million people lived in the US when Key put ink to paper. What we are left with 206 years later is a poem written in 1814, fitted to a music sheet of the late 1700s, approved by Congress as our anthem in 1931, played routinely at sporting events now for some 350 million Americans to embrace as their hail to country. Clearly, not all of us are able to get our arms around it.

These symbolic bits of patriotism can change. Prime example: the Pledge of Allegiance, written by Francis Bellamy in 1892.

Son of a Baptist minister, Bellamy was 37 when he wrote the pledge, first published — with no reference to “under God” — as part of a campaign to sell US flags to public schools across the nation. Bellamy was both a Christian socialist and public school advocate.

Today, and for nearly the last 80 years, custom has been to place our right hand over our hearts as we recite, “I pledge allegiance to the flag . . . "

However, for the first 50 years of the pledge’s existence, Americans accompanied it with the Bellamy Salute. The recitation began with the right hand raised at forehead level like a military salute and then the pledger slowly raised and extended the arm, holding it high in reverence to the flag at the finish. Hard today to look at pictures of the Bellamy Salute and not gasp.

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It was all good until the 1930s when fascists and Nazis in Europe fashioned a near-identical salute to pay homage to their flags. What originally was an innocent, patriotic homage to the republic here in the US grew to look sick and twisted, time and custom colliding in a mess. On Dec. 22, 1942, Congress amended the Flag Code, rendering the Bellamy Salute an all-but-forgotten piece of history.

Connecticut schoolchildren doing the Bellamy Salute in 1942.
Connecticut schoolchildren doing the Bellamy Salute in 1942.Fenno Jacobs/Library of Congress

Personally, I’m with Revolution coach Bruce Arena, who told ESPN late in the week that he believes playing the anthem at sporting events puts people “in awkward positions.”

“We don’t use the national anthem in movie theaters or on Broadway,” said Arena, “or for other events in the United States. “I don’t think it is appropriate to have a national anthem before a baseball game or an MLS game. But having said that, I want it understood that I am very patriotic, but I think it is inappropriate.”

I’d be fine if we kept a day at the ballgame free of all patriotic customs and gestures. I can save it all for the July 4 parade, the annual turning around of Old Ironsides, or a bucket-list trip to Washington to see a president inaugurated.

But if we’re going to continue trotting out Uncle Sam to throw out the first pitch or drop the puck, then let’s take some time now to create a song that works for all of us. One that’s relevant in 2020. One that plays to the better angels of our nature. One that is versed in inclusion, hope, trust, and equality for all. The e pluribus unum of anthems.

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Obviously, not an easy one to write. But when have we had a better opportunity to hit pause and fix a song that just isn’t working for all of us?


Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at kevin.dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.