There are a lot of stereotypes regarding the national anthem being sung at the beginning of major sporting events. In their review of the film Mystery, Alaska, the New York Times referred to Little Richard’s incredibly slow rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as “an amusing satirical touch.” But Mystery was not the first movie to make fun of the stereotype that singers tend to milk the national anthem for all it’s worth, and it won’t be the last.
Clearly, the national anthem is a tried and true sports tradition. Not just in America, either. The Russian Hockey Federation was just slapped with an $85,000 fine by the International Ice Hockey Federation because Russian players skated off the ice before the Canadian national anthem was played following Canada’s win in the world championship. That seems pretty hefty, especially since the fine was issued after Russia apologized (indicating that it might have been greater if they hadn’t). The message is that failure to respect a country’s national anthem is a sign of bad sportsmanship.
But remember that it was the IIHF who issued the fine, not Canada themselves. In other words, there’s no telling if Canada takes the link between sports and the national anthem so seriously. In the United States, however, we absolutely do. Sure, half of us are bored and just waiting for the ten-minute rendition of a two-minute song we’ve known since grade school to hurry up and end already. But if someone forgets the words, we’ll remember it and dissect the story to no end. Why? To answer that, let’s take a look at how the national anthem became a sports tradition in the first place, why it remains a tradition to this day, and why some people would like to see that tradition put to an end.
History of the National Anthem in Sports
ESPN did a pretty good job of breaking down the athletic history of the national anthem in pretty thorough detail. Not surprisingly, the sport that appears to have initiated the trend is the same sport with which the national anthem is most greatly associated: baseball. At various times throughout the 1800s, the song was performed during major baseball games. Its regular use seems to have begun around 1918, when the nation was coming out of the First World War. The national anthem had long been performed in front of members of our armed services, and there were many such men on the field during that time.
It should be noted that it was originally played by an actual military band, and was performed during the seventh-inning stretch rather than at the top of the game. But that’s not the only difference between the first baseball performances of the national anthem and the performances you’ll see today. The even more astounding difference is that, nowadays, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is actually our national anthem. Back in 1918, it actually wasn’t. Over a hundred years old by that point, it was certainly associated with patriotism, especially in a time when the military was on the forefront of our minds. But it wasn’t adopted by Congress as our national anthem until 1931.
The song’s popularity in 1918 was largely due to the presence of Boston Red Sox third baseman Fred Thomas. He was on furlough from active duty, and his reaction to hearing the song instilled a sense of pride in players and fans alike. For some time after that, it was played often during holiday games. By the time we reached World War II, you could not go to a single baseball game without hearing the national anthem.
The Second World War brought other changes to the national anthem. Not only was it now played before every game rather than during the seventh-inning stretch of a few big ones, but it was also no longer played by a military band. We were a bit more technologically advanced by this point, and were able to broadcast the song on speakers, with a singer standing at a microphone. This changed the very nature of the song itself, since it was now performed a cappella. No more were we greeted by the loud and brassy sound of instruments played by honored men in uniform.
Of course, this paved the way for the stereotypes we discussed earlier. But it also gave the national anthem a new dimension. Now that whether or not it would be performed was no longer a question, we could begin wondering who would perform it. At major games, the song is generally performed today by a celebrity or other honored guest. It is also performed at much more than baseball games. Go to any major basketball, football or hockey game, and you’re likely to hear it. Even NASCAR and pro wrestling make use of our national anthem from time to time.
We’ve talked about long-standing baseball traditions before, but this is different. First of all, we have no bones to pick with it (although we’ll discuss later why some people do). Second, this is one of the few baseball traditions to spread to other sports. Third, this is a bit unique in that “The Star-Spangled Banner” actually became a baseball tradition before it became a national one. Sure, it had been played at parades and other functions, largely at the behest of Woodrow Wilson. But it was well over a century after Francis Scott Key penned “Defence of Fort McHenry” and had his brother-in-law set it to the tune of John Stafford Smith’s “The Anacreontic Song” that it actually became honored as the American song. Baseball still waited more than a century, but still…it’s neat to know they were ahead of the curve.
But Why Do We Still Sing It Today?
Back in 2011, just a few days after the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, the Bleacher Report published an article on why we sing the national anthem at sporting events. It opened by discussing a nationwide tribute performed at American football stadiums, which ended with the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Moving forward with the article, writer Gene Siudut discussed the Pledge of Allegiance. Anyone who graduated school in the states is thoroughly familiar with it. However, Siudut pointed out that most of us don’t really hear it again once we have graduated. Having spoken it five days a week for a dozen years straight, we certainly know it. But that one thing we used to do every morning to express our patriotism is suddenly gone from our lives. Hearing the national anthem at sporting events is about the closest that most of us will ever come to such a display as adults.
Naturally, this is not quite the case for those who join the armed forces. Every day of their lives is an expression of their love for the United States and its citizens. That’s why we applaud them at airports. That’s why we take a moment to express gratitude when we run into someone donning their uniform in public. And that’s why stolen valor is a big deal, even if some people are a little too hasty in their accusations.
The national anthem has been a part of sports for nearly a hundred years, and it’s been a part of our nation’s history for more than two hundred. When you think about it, that isn’t much longer than our formal existence as a nation. If you don’t expect Milwaukee to turn its back on the Sausage Races any time soon, then you can’t expect an entire nation of athletes and sports fans to turn their backs on one of the oldest traditions we have.
This might sound like heavy-handed American pride, but it’s not. If it were, then we wouldn’t hear “O Canada” every time the Toronto Blue Jays play a game stateside. It’s a matter of common courtesy, of expressing respect for the history of one of our most cherished allies. And they extend the same veneration in return. That’s why Canadian fans joined in to sing our national anthem when it was prematurely cut due to technical difficulties during a game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Nashville Predators last year. Had Russia won the world championship, we’re guessing that the IIHF wouldn’t have had to serve Canada with a $85,000 fine. And under most circumstances, it wouldn’t happen to Russia, either. Usually, the sports world is pretty good about embracing international relations. That’s one of the reasons we have this little thing called the Olympics. Well, that and the fact that shot putters wouldn’t get ratings if we didn’t.
So whether it be the United States or any other nation that decides to sing the national anthem before a game, don’t think that they’re just doing it out of pride. That’s certainly an element, but it’s more about history than anything else. You wouldn’t have to take all those history classes during your school years if there were no value in acknowledging where you came from. But as the music swells and the whole stadium stands at attention, you get to remember that fans and athletes on both sides are, for better or for worse, playing on the same team. That’s a pretty beautiful thing.
Should the National Anthem Be Replaced?
This is the big question that gets brought up every once in a while. Yeah, it’s been a tradition for nearly a century. Neat. Okay, so it reminds us where we came from. Cool. And sure, it brings fans on both sides of the stadium together for a few minutes. Fabulous. But shouldn’t we just get rid of it? It might sound like a ridiculous question after everything we’ve talked about, but there are people who are absolutely determined to get rid of the national anthem at athletic events.
One of the better-known proponents of this belief is Professor Kevin Blackistone, who got a lot of press in 2013 when he went on ESPN and said that a “war anthem” should not be associated with competitive sports. He got a lot of heat for it, with many people declaring what he said to be a “rant,” despite the fact that he was just calmly stating his beliefs. Of course, he’s actually stated multiple times that the national anthem should not be affiliated with sports.
Blackistone went on the radio to clarify some of his beliefs. He made it clear that his problem was with military symbolism. In no way were his views meant to sound anti-American, but rather to end what he perceives to be the commercialism of military sentiment that he feels has conflated militarism with pure patriotism. In fact, he even stated that he would be in favor of replacing the national anthem with “America the Beautiful,” although it was pointed out that some people would potentially take issue with the word “God” being used in the lyrics.
In some ways, Blackistone makes some valid points. He even targets the Pledge of Allegiance, pointing out that it began as something of a socialist creation and that it was changed during the McCarthy era. If we’re going to defend the national anthem on the grounds that it helps us to recognize where we came from, then these types of points cannot be ignored. On a completely different note, he points out that it is incredibly difficult to sing, a fact of which we were reminded by Jamie Foxx during the fight between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao this year.
Political commentator Alan Colmes has also expressed the belief that “America the Beautiful” would make a better national anthem. Granted, it’s a bit hard to take him seriously when he also suggests replacing “The Star-Spangled Banner” with “America” from West Side Story. It’s true that the song does contain a lot of war-based imagery, and is in many ways meant to be a snub against the British for failing to take down Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore. Of course, one might say that this is less of a snub toward the British and more of a statement of American resilience. But people like Colmes and Blackistone don’t understand why this should be the message of our national anthem. With “America the Beautiful,” we have the much more peaceful message of “hey, look at all our pretty mountains and stuff.”
This is where we’d usually answer the question posed by the subheading, but we aren’t going to. Instead, we’ll answer the question posed by the title. Yes, the national anthem is important to sports. The only remaining question is whether it should be. Truth be told, a few red rockets and bursting bombs don’t seem like they’re going to create a nation of people who can’t tell the difference between militarism and good old-fashioned love for country. The claims by Blackistone and Colmes that the national anthem glorifies violence seem to be a little bit overstated. For most people, it’s just an old song with a few high-octave lyrics that tend to result in a few cracked voices and a lot of other fans simply mouthing the words. If that’s the worst thing to happen to our nation’s sports, then it sounds like we’re actually in pretty decent shape.