Let’s stop playing the national anthem before sporting events

Take a knee, or change things?
Take a knee, or change things?
Image: Reuters/Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
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Here’s an idea: Let’s stop playing the national anthem at sporting events that don’t involve national teams.

I know—standing and saluting or putting our hands over our hearts during the national anthem at a sporting event is what us Americans are all so used to. But, in fact, playing the anthem before a game was a relatively rare occurrence prior to the World War II era. Part of this is because recorded, amplified music wasn’t readily accessible prior to this time. But let’s consider what is really at stake by not playing the anthem at a football or baseball game.

Would we be actively dishonoring the country? No.

Would we be insulting our military, or our flag? No.

But by playing the anthem before a sporting event, we trivialize the very real loss of life that our armed forces experience—we play the anthem at a kind of mock war, where battles are waged but lives are essentially never lost (except in rare cases of traumatic injury).

I’m watching the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick series The Vietnam War right now, and I suddenly understand the past 50 years of American history better than ever before. I was struck by the veteran who believed he might’ve been part of the last generation to trust the government when it told the public that something (like serving in the war) needed to be done. Part of our dependence on hearing the national anthem on a Thursday evening or Sunday afternoon could be to avoid confronting this very real problem, and the pain of healing such a confrontation might cause. Might we be better able to move past our distrust of government if we did not over-venerate it, to begin with? The novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk makes me think that we might do better at national healing over war and politics if we did not thrust overt patriotism in every American’s face.

I owe everything to this country. My parents are immigrants, and when I think of the life I might’ve had in Eastern Europe, as opposed to the life their sacrifice enabled me to have here, I am humbled and grateful. I feel like nothing more than an American. In fact, it was years before I realized that, during seminal events in American history, like the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, my ancestors were likely growing apples and subsistence farming in rural southeastern Poland. Yet I feel far more tied to the issues of Constitutional freedoms, equality among men and women of all races and religions, and the very nature of American government than I do to the issues faced by my relatives in the rebuilding of postwar Europe.

So, perhaps as a student of American history, politics, and government, but one at a slight remove, I can say that what might ail us is a supercharged nationalism that leads to irrational decision-making when it comes to politics and policy.

I love going to baseball and basketball games, and have held season tickets for both the NBA’s New York Knicks (pray for me) and the New York Yankees (I know, you hate them). I’ve been to professional sports games around the country across all leagues. While there were moments during the playing of anthems that were profoundly patriotic, as at the World Series, for the most part, especially during regular season games, these moments were rote. Something about the specialness of hearing the anthem was sucked away by the ordinariness of the experience. Even if I was feeling patriotic, looking around the arena, from the nosebleeds to the luxury seats, and seeing other fans not care, or worse, made me feel like the anthem wasn’t loved by everyone, after all.

I’d love to see how Americans might regain respect and awe for the “Star Spangled Banner” if it was only played during national team sporting events, like the Olympics, or track-and-field competitions, or international soccer matches, or perhaps only during the playoffs. There is nothing implicitly patriotic, after all, about Cleveland facing off against Oakland in August. Both teams, and their fans, are beyond lucky to be living in a country with the freedoms ours has. Perhaps saving the anthem for international matches and special games will truly remind Americans what it is that our military has fought for in conflict after conflict.

There’s an irony here, I know. What I’m wondering in this essay is whether hearing less of our national anthem will make us Americans more patriotic—in a way that improves the state of our union. There’s no question in my mind that most Americans respect the flag and the freedoms of our country when the anthem is played. But if we don’t play the anthem at movies, on television, on social media, in parks, on mass transit, before concerts, or before other public gatherings, what is so special about sporting events? Is it possible that sports leagues, run by billionaire owners, are draping themselves in patriotism that is unearned, perhaps unwarranted, for a mere game among highly paid adults? Perhaps they are even disguising the flaws of their game with giant flags, draped in violation of the US Code, while their players struggle with mental illness and brain damage?

Is it possible playing the anthem before games, and demanding that athletes put their hands over their hearts, is the same as demanding citizens swear allegiance to an imperfect union—one that, while they may be grateful for, they also seek to improve, as has been the right and duty of every previous American generation? Would it not be better to ask all citizens to create a union that all people, of all races and religions, desire to swear allegiance to?

When US national teams are in competition against other countries around the world, I would happily be among the first to stand up and salute our flag, with my hand over my heart. But when American cities are competing against each other, perhaps the right beginning to the game is some kind of alternative recognition of how lucky we Americans are to be able to engage in mock battle against each other, on athletic fields? I for one would find that preferable to the playing of our national anthem before a game; an anthem that commemorates the bloody, deathly battles that our predecessors fought, only so that, as it turns out, our current president could stir up false controversy over solemn protests about racism and death—protests that our entire country needs to hear, in order that we should progress, and become that more perfect union.