For 102 years, “The Star-Spangled Banner” has been played before professional sporting events in the United States. It’s time to give it a rest.
Sports are back after the long coronavirus pandemic hiatus, which is great for fans. But most games are now preceded by an interlude of anger, pain, or politics linked to the national anthem, which is not great for anyone. Players have been using the pregame ceremonies to make silent statements about racial justice or to stage peaceful protests against police wrongdoing. More power to them. But there is no need to entangle their message with a compulsory show of patriotism, which is what the playing of the national anthem at ballparks has always amounted to.
On Saturday, the Women’s National Basketball Association opened its 2020 season with the Seattle Storm facing off against the New York Liberty. But before the game began, as “The Star-Spangled Banner” was about to be played, members of both teams dropped their basketballs, walked off the court, and returned to their locker rooms.
As Major League Baseball resumed last Thursday, there were similar gestures of support for Black Lives Matter. Before games at Fenway Park, Tropicana Field, and elsewhere, athletes and coaches knelt, locked arms, or held a black ribbon before or during the national anthem. A number of teams took to social media to highlight the protests. The Los Angeles Dodgers posted video of right fielder Mookie Betts taking a knee as the “The Star-Spangled Banner” played.
But conflating gestures of racial justice with the national anthem doesn’t sit well with everyone. And there is no reason it should have to.
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is now widely lionized for starting the trend of NFL players kneeling in protest during the anthem. What seemed close to radical when he began it four years ago has become close to routine today. The pendulum has moved so far that players who express discomfort with kneeling in protest can expect to find themselves repeatedly apologizing, like New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, or, like San Francisco Giants pitcher Sam Coonrod, accused of bad faith.
Yet for many Americans, including many with a deep commitment to racial equality and reform, the national anthem is sacrosanct, and they bristle at anything that can be construed as disrespect.
“Daddy would not have liked Colin Kaepernick,” wrote NPR’s chief diversity officer Keith Woods, whose father grew up in Jim Crow Louisiana. For all the contempt with which America treated Black men like Verdun Woods, he loved his country and its symbols. “Every time he took my brothers and me to see the Saints play football at old Tulane Stadium, we all stood for the national anthem,” his son recounted when the Kaepernick controversy erupted. “We took off our caps, faced the flag, and placed hands over hearts.”
No doubt some of those who condemn the anthem protests are merely boors eager to inflame ill will. Why give them the opportunity? If there were no “Star-Spangled Banner” before games, the protests couldn’t be tarred as unpatriotic. Mike Ditka would have no reason to tell kneeling athletes to “get the hell out of the country” if their show of solidarity didn’t come at the expense of standing for the national anthem.
There has never been a good rationale for saluting the flag at sporting events. We don’t stand for the national anthem when we go to a play or appear in court. The song isn’t played at congressional hearings or in church. The whole custom of doing so at ball games began as an out-of-the-box idea to boost spirits during the 1918 World Series. But once it became routine, it lost its meaning. It turned into a pro forma display of loyalty, often treated as little more than a chance to grab a beer.
This is one tradition we should jettison. Players don’t need “The Star-Spangled Banner” to kneel in a demonstration of principle. Fans don’t need it to get ready for sports. Currently, the stands are empty anyway. This would be a good time to show the national anthem some respect and take it out of the ballgame.