O, say, can you see a game without 'The Star-Spangled Banner'?

February 10, 2021

The most interesting aspect of the Dallas Mavericks omitting “The Star-Spangled Banner” before their home games this season is that it took 13 games before anyone asked them about it.

It supports my long-held suspicion that playing the American national anthem ahead of sporting events has become a rote gesture devoid of conscious meaning for most of the people involved, as notable as football’s coin toss or baseball coaches exchanging lineup cards at home plate. These rituals have become part of the fabric of our sports landscape, but they’re not strictly necessary.

What do we lose by shedding the national anthem ahead of sporting events? Just look at the player introductions from NBA games in the mid-1980s, when there was no music and players were simply announced to cheers or boos. Any honest assessment acknowledges that performing the anthem contributes to the game’s pageantry, that the moment where athletes and spectators are asked to pause and salute the flag has become another promotional and entertainment element in sports teams’ game presentation programs. Moreover, you didn’t really think Eric Church and Jazmine Sullivan were chosen to perform the anthem at this year’s Super Bowl purely based on their talent and the artistic sensibilities of the program directors, did you? (Church’s new project comes out in April; Sullivan’s latest came out in January.)

The most generous defense of performing the anthem before games that I can muster is that, when done correctly and thoughtfully, it’s an expression of unity and gratitude, a secular prayer of thanks that we can enjoy a game under the auspices of a government by and for the people. But “correctly and thoughtfully” is a huge caveat. We don’t even have to know who John Carlos, Tommie Smith, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Toni Smith-Thompson, Carlos Delgado, and Colin Kaepernick are to consider if playing the anthem before games fulfills even the most noble of intentions or if it ultimately cheapens any intentions through oversaturation.

Moreover, while playing the anthem before sports games became more or less standard in the years after World War II, it wasn’t embraced uniformly. The Chicago Cubs didn’t make it a permanent part of their program until the Vietnam War, for example. Also, notably, the Dallas Mavericks didn’t play “The Star-Spangled Banner” before games for the franchise’s first 16 seasons, well into the 1990s, apparently at the behest of founding owner Don Carter. Again, it’s become part of the entertainment package.

Play anthems before national teams compete. Play the anthem before championship games. Play it on patriotic holidays, like Independence Day. Change the anthem to “This Land Is Your Land” and encourage everyone to sing the lines about seeing a sign that reads “No Trespassing”. And if that practice saps the anthem of its meaning, stop and do something else.

Another reminder… I’m launching a new project next week, writing about a fictional NBA expansion team called the Pittsburgh Pierogies. Read the introduction, and be sure to subscribe to the mailing list so you don’t miss any entries.

(Photo: "National Anthem" by Minda Haas Kuhlmann. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)