The NFL season kicks off Thursday, which means discussions about the continued incompetence of the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions and quarrels about the national anthem are coming to a breakfast nook near you.
If the launch of Nike’s ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick is any indication, this season’s anthem debate could be the most polarizing yet, begging the question, why is The Star-Spangled Banner played before sporting events?
“It really is one one those things that scholars call invented tradition,” said Marc Ferris, author of Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America’s National Anthem. “Sports is kind of bloodless warfare. These are our gladiators. Back in the day during World War II, it wasn’t just sporting events, it was theater performances, movies, civic gatherings. Sometimes at restaurants, people would spontaneously burst out singing the Anthem.”
With the country steeped in patriotism during the war, Major League Baseball, which saw many of its stars enlisted in the military, began playing the anthem during the seventh-inning stretch.
The NFL followed MLB’s lead, choosing to play The Star-Spangled Banner after games. When the war ended, NFL commissioner Elmer Layden made the decision to keep the anthem on the playlist.
“The national anthem should be as much a part of every game as the kickoff,” he said. “We must not drop it simply because the war is over. We should never forget what it stands for.”
Commissioner Layden’s words, uttered more than 70 years ago, ring true to many today in the fierce debate over the song and what it represents. One side is firmly entrenched on standing to support the troops, and anything to the contrary is disrespectful. On the other side, NFL players are kneeling in silent protest to show their objections for racial injustice against African-Americans.
Some service members have come to the aid of kneelers, explaining that their sacrifice was made to give Americans a voice to make non-violent protests. The Kaepernick ad campaign and beginning of the NFL season is bringing the topic back to the forefront.
“I really could not have foreseen this in any way, shape, or form,” Mr. Ferris said. “This is the third season that we are talking about the national anthem in the NFL. I called it in the book the most controversial song in American history before this stuff happened. And now, it’s just an absolute lightning rod.
“The anthem has always been polarizing. Whatever you see the country as, the anthem is going to reflect that view.”
People have posted videos burning their Nike shoes, cutting out the Nike swoosh from clothing, and announcing personal boycotts from the brand. Others have invoked Pat Tillman, the former NFL player who left the league to join the Army Rangers after 9/11. Mr. Tillman was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. Family and friends have repeatedly asked that Tillman’s death not be politicized for other’s gain.
“Pat would have found Kaepernick an extremely admirable person for what he believed in,” author Jon Krakauer, who wrote a biography of Mr. Tillman, told The Washington Post. “I have no doubt if he was in the NFL today, he would be the first to kneel. So there is irony about what is going on.”
President Trump’s references to players who kneel as “sons of bitches” last year sent the anthem debate into another stratosphere.
All the bickering probably wasn’t what people had in mind when a band was hired in 1862 to play The Star-Spangled Banner at a Brooklyn baseball game during the Civil War. Because it was before the advent of sound systems, the song — not yet the country’s official anthem — was only performed for special occasions, such as Opening Day.
As World War I raged in the fall of 1918, the cancellation of the World Series was discussed. But U.S. soldiers in France yearned so much for the results of the series between the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs that MLB made the decision to play. Exactly 100 years ago Wednesday, the song was performed during the seventh inning of Game 1.
Red Sox third baseman Fred Thomas, who was on furlough from the U.S. Navy, saluted the flag during the song. The Comiskey Park crowd sang along and erupted in applause when the song ended.
The scene made such an impression that the New York Times game story led with the playing of the song, calling it, “Far different from any incident that has ever occurred in the history of baseball. ... The mind of the baseball fan was on the war. The patriotic outburst following the singing of the national anthem was far greater than the upheaval of emotion which greeted Babe Ruth, the Boston southpaw, when he conquered Hippo Jim Vaughn and the Cubs in a seething flinging duel by a score of 1 to 0.”
The Cubs continued playing the song in Games 2 and 3, and Boston moved it to a pregame activity when the series moved to Massachusetts. The Red Sox also invited wounded veterans to the games, which produced the days’ loudest ovations, according to an account by the Chicago Tribune.
Despite being penned by Francis Scott Key in 1814, The Star-Spangled Banner didn’t become the country’s national anthem until 1931 when President Herbert Hoover signed a bill making it official.
Fifty years ago, at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games, U.S. track athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith did the black power salute during the anthem to draw attention to civil rights, leading to fierce criticism and banishment from the Games. Similarly, Kaepernick hasn’t received a contract offer from an NFL team since he began kneeling.
The national anthem is now ubiquitous from high school sports to professional events to the Olympics. But there was a time in the 1950s and ‘60s when owners of the Chicago Cubs and Baltimore Orioles stopped playing the anthem before every game because they believed it “cheapened its impact.” It didn’t become a daily ritual until 1967 at Wrigley Field.
Before 9/11, college football teams remained in the locker room during the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner. NFL teams weren’t on the field for the anthem until 2009, though during the Vietnam War commissioner Pete Rozelle mandated players stand at attention during the song.
Prior to the kneeling controversy, sports fans stood in a desultory fashion during the national anthem. It became almost a token gesture that didn’t hold meaning because people heard the song with such regularity. Those feelings have been amended.
“This is a melody and lyrics, and the flag is just a designed piece of cloth. But it’s emotional,” Mr. Ferris said. “People have always invested emotion into patriotism. It’s music, man. There’s just something about music that pierces the soul.”
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