- I love America, I support the troops, and I want sports teams to stop playing the national anthem before every game.
- It’s a ritual of joyless conformity, not an expression of genuine patriotism.
- End the obligatory performances and shame-enforced head-bowing. Make it a “sometimes thing,” not an “all the time” thing.
- For the love of America, make the “Star Spangled Banner” mean something again.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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A snarky Canadian beer vendor once gave me a well-deserved lesson in patriotism.
It was in Toronto, my first time attending a Major League Baseball game outside the US. Shortly before game time, a friend and I ordered a couple of beers at a kiosk in the Rogers Centre’s concourse.
But upon hearing the opening notes of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” we froze in our tracks, removed our caps, and gazed solemnly at the field.
The beer vendor looked at us with puzzled bemusement.
“What are you doing?”
“Well, in our country, if you don’t stop what you’re doing and take off your cap for the national anthem, they shame you,” my friend sheepishly explained.
“Well, you’re not in your country,” she Canadian-splained us.
Canadians don’t love their country any less than Americans. On the contrary, they will not shut up about how much more polite they are, how much cleaner their cities are, and how much better their overall quality of life is.
Still, that national anthem moment in Toronto was an instructive one.
It reinforced my belief that in America, the playing of the national anthem isn’t a moment of prayer and reflection for those lost in war, or a communal expression of gratitude for all that makes America great.
The pre-game anthem is a mass display of ritualized obedience, born of wartime jingoism, socially enforced by drunken yobs screaming “Hats off!” at anyone who’s being innocently absentminded about the performative patriotism.
Given the overwrought pomp and circumstance, sports teams should get rid of the tradition of playing the anthem before Every. Single. Sporting Event. And the American public should support that move.
It’ll be good for America.
It’s not a tribute to America, it’s an ode to war and a ritual of joyless conformity
This week, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban confirmed that for the entirety of the current National Basketball Association’s season and preseason, the national anthem wasn’t played prior to his team’s home games.
No one had noticed until Cuban confirmed it with The Athletic.
The NBA told The Athletic that given the bizarre and difficult circumstances of the pandemic era, they were fine with teams deciding how to conduct their pre-game operations. But after conservative pushback the league quickly relented, as did Cuban, and just like that we’re back to the business-as-usual of acting out a quasi-religious devotion to a tuneless song about war.
And make no mistake, both the anthem and its pregame performance are about war.
The “Star Spangled Banner” had been performed at sporting events before, but it made its first prominent appearance in the 1918 World Series during World War I, thirteen years before it was even officially the national anthem.
SB Nation notes that the anthem really became codified into American sporting life just after World War II, when the National Football League’s commissioner ordered its compulsory pre-game performance.
And after 9/11 — and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — many teams added the playing of “God Bless America” as a mid-game ritual.
As an almost-lifelong New Yorker, I can attest to being truly moved by such performances in the immediate wake of the devastating attacks that killed almost 3,000 of my neighbors. Ray Charles’ stirring performance of “America the Beautiful” during the 2001 World Series still bears the authentic passion to bring me to my knees.
But by 2016, the New York Daily News reported that 61% of baseball fans wanted to get rid of the song’s buzzkilling mid-game performance, with the writer Gersh Kuntzman lamenting the “ponderous Mussolini-esque introduction of the song, when fans are asked to rise, remove their caps and place them over their hearts.”
It is not healthy to spend this much time glorifying war and blind nationalism. And if all you have to do to “respect the troops” is obey the inebriated lout in the next row barking at you to take your hat off, then that “respect” is pretty worthless.
There are more meaningful ways of respecting the troops, like volunteerism, generous donations to veterans’ advocacy groups, and agitating for lawmakers to fix the wretchedly corrupt and mismanaged Department of Veterans Affairs.
The law of scarcity is also at play here.
If the anthem isn’t played tens of thousands of times a year before every sporting event from high school to the pros, its performance inherently becomes more special.
As it stands now, for many but not all, standing for the anthem is a joyless act performed for the sake of keeping out of trouble — like reciting the pledge of allegiance at the start of a school day in third grade.
While it might seem counterintuitive, doing away with the anthem as a mandatory ritual could very well make its performance a more genuinely patriotic experience.
So let’s doff our caps to that maverick Mark Cuban and follow his lead.
Save the national anthem for special occasions, or moments where we truly need to dip into collective patriotism as a gesture of national healing (like we did immediately after 9/11).
End the obligatory performances and shame-enforced head-bowing.
For the love of America, make the “Star Spangled Banner” mean something again.
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