Aerial photograph of Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, home to the San Francisco 49rs NFL franchise. The photo depicts a patriotic display with a large American flag unfurled across the playing field and another in the stands using coordinated placards, which assembled, suggest a flag motif.

Time To Quit Playing The National Anthem At Sporting Events

by Tony Wyman


It’s Time To Quit Playing The National Anthem At Sporting Events

Before you read this article, I want you to stop, get on YouTube and listen to a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner while standing with your hand over your heart, silently paying respect to those whose sacrifice gave you the liberty to live in freedom like you do, today.

And, if you don’t, you’re an unpatriotic ingrate living in America without showing the proper deference to military veterans like me.

Did you just tell me to get stuffed?  If not, you should have.  I have no right, legal or moral, to force you to comply with my demand that you listen to the National Anthem and behave in a way I deem patriotic simply because I control the medium from which my message to you comes. And, neither, for that matter, do professional or scholastic sports teams in America.

We don’t play the Star Spangled Banner before each session of Congress.  We don’t play it before the president’s State of the Union address.  Nor do we play it prior to the Supreme Court hearing cases critical to maintaining our nation’s freedom. 

But, whenever the hapless Cincinnati Bengals go like cows to the slaughter to face the mighty New England Patriots, out come the flags and flyovers.  To the microphone, with a backdrop of members of each branch of the armed forces holding a flag, walks a singer determined to reduce the audience to tears singing the lyrics of a song that has absolutely nothing to do with the game about to be played.

Well, actually, only 80 of the 314 words of the song.  But that’s another story.

If you’ve been to professional, college or high school sporting events where the Star Spangled Banner is played, you’ve seen what I’ve seen: a mix of reactions from the fans.  Some stand at attention with their hands over their hearts, others stand because social pressure forces them to do so. 

For those standing solemnly in respect, the playing of the anthem is unnecessary evidence of their patriotism; for those checking their cell phones or drinking a beer during the song, it is simply pointless, a waste of two minutes of their time they’d rather spend doing something else.

But what bothers me as a veteran more than the fans playing free cell on their iPhones during the national anthem is how playing the Star Spangled Banner is becoming a political litmus test used to divide one group of Americans from another.

To understand why this is important, we need to look at the history of how the Star Spangled Banner came to be played at games in the first place.

History of playing the Star Spangled Banner during athletic contests


While it may seem like it for most Americans, this country hasn’t always played our national anthem prior to sporting events.  In fact, the first time the Star Spangled Banner was played at a sporting event, it wasn’t even yet our national anthem.

The poem from which “The Star Spangled Banner” came was written by Francis Scott Key in 1814 and was originally entitled “In Defense of Fort McHenry.” 

The poem became widely popular after it was printed in newspapers across the country and composer John Stafford Smith set it to music, replacing the lyrics of a British drinking song, “To Anacreon in Heaven,” with Key’s composition.  Over time, people began referring to the song as “The Star Spangled Banner.”

The song grew in popularity during the latter part of the 19th century and was often played at public events celebrating America’s history and heritage.  At the time, the country had no official national anthem, although songs such as “Hail, Columbia,” “My Country, Tis of Thee,” and “America the Beautiful” filled the void.

Near the end of the 19th, Navy Secretary Benjamin Tracy ordered the “Star Spangled Banner” played whenever the flag was raised on a Navy base or vessel and, in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson (a notorious racist), chose the song to be played at all appropriate military and government functions, making it the de facto, yet unofficial, national anthem.

It wasn’t until two years later, though, when the nation was in the last days of World War 1 and had suffered more than 100,000 dead (45,000 to the Spanish Flu) in little more than a year, that the song was played during a sporting event.  The game was the opener of the 1918 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs.

During the seventh inning stretch, the Navy Band in attendance for the game, starting playing the “Star Spangled Banner” to entertain the crowd.  Players, many of whom were slated for military service, came to their feet and stood at attention, looking towards the flag.  Members of the crowd joined them and began singing the lyrics.

Seeing the positive impact the song had on the fans, the owner of the Boston team found a band to play the song when the game came to his city.  And, from there, after the song became the official national anthem in 1931, playing the Star Spangled Banner became a mainstay for Major League Baseball, but only during special events like the World Series and national holidays.

Years later, when World War Two started, Major League Baseball games became places where large scale displays of patriotism were possible, so owners, seeking to keep morale up,  started playing the National Anthem at the beginning of each game.  From there, it spread to other sports around the country.

A Response to Real National Threats

The ritual of playing the National Anthem was in response to existential threats to the nation and to the free world that required the mobilization of the American people and all the nation’s resources. 

At a time when media was limited and mostly local, when there was no internet, when national television broadcasts were still years away, when the only form of mass communication was through newspapers and radio stations, it made sense the government used sporting events to promote patriotism and to rally the people to the cause of militarily defeating our nation’s enemies.

Rallying them with patriotic displays of military might have made sense then, but, now, during times of relative peace, why are we still doing it?  One might argue we are still at war, with troops seeing limited combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the reality is there is simply no need to mobilize the American people to combat the enemies we face today. 

The Taliban and ISIL aren’t an enemy like the ones we faced in the two world conflicts or during the Korean and Vietnamese wars. 

Gone are the days where we rely on the draft to fill our military ranks with troops willing to take on combat roles to defeat our enemies. In fact, despite very low unemployment levels in 2019, the Army and the Air Force both met their recruiting goals in 2019, with the Marines and Navy not far behind.

In addition, our armed forces are so overwhelmingly powerful no nation in the world is suicidal enough to challenge us directly.  Iraq’s Saddam Hussein showed other tyrants what a fool’s mistake that is.

The military budget of the United States for 2020 is $684.6 billion, according to the IISS report, “The Military Balance.” The U.S. spends more on the military than the next 11 highest spenders combined, nearly four times what China, the world’s second largest economy, spends, and more than 11 times the expenditure of Russia.

Chart showing military spending by country
The military budget of the United States for 2020 is $684,6 billion, according to the IISS report, “The Military Balance.” The U.S. spends more on the military than the next 11 highest spenders combined, nearly four times what China, the world’s second largest economy, spends, and more than 11 times the expenditure of Russia.

The National Anthem and the troops wrongly framed, is divisive.

So, why have we not only continued to play the National Anthem at most organized games in this country but, actually, ratcheted up the militarization of sporting events like football? 

Two reasons: money and politics.

In 2015, a Senate report revealed the Pentagon paid professional sports teams $6.8 million for patriotic events during games.  Some of these events included “surprise” reunions of troops with loved ones, flyovers of military combat aircraft, special operations troops repelling onto the field from stadium roofs and paratroopers gliding onto the fields at half-time. 

My ex-wife and children, including my son who is now on active duty, were paraded onto the field at a Reds game to receive a message from her brother in Afghanistan in front of a crowd of fans watching from their seats.

While these events appeared to be genuine expressions of appreciation for the troops and displays of military prowess, many were actually paid advertisements by the military aimed at selling patriotism as a means to recruit troops and build support for the growing Pentagon budget, which is the highest ever, adjusted for inflation, except during the Iraq War, since complete data was kept in 1976.

“You go to the ballpark and you are thinking, ‘Oh, isn’t that great the Red Sox or the Patriots or the Atlanta Falcons they are out there and they are doing this organic display to say thank you for your service’ when, actually, they are being paid for it,” said sports writer Howard Bryant on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines.” “That the Milwaukee Brewers actually charged the Wisconsin National Guard $49,000 to sing ‘God Bless America,’ this is not patriotism, this is commercialism.”

Commercialism is precisely what it is.  Selling the sport to fans as an expression of Americanism.  Selling camouflage hats and jerseys as a means to co-opt the love Americans have for the troops and transfer it to the athletes “at war” on the “battlefield” that is the gridiron, throwing “bombs” and countering with “blitzes.”  Exploiting the troops for marketing purposes.

Camo football jersey
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott’s camouflage football jersey sells for $170 online.

And, as San Diego Union-Tribune sports writer Mark Zeigler put it in 2018, “The result, intended or not: Sports suddenly have become an arbitrary test of patriotism.”

And, seeing that, politicians have seized on it for its emotional value.

Of course, the best example of this is the reaction some politicians had to former San Francisco 49rs quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling in protest against police brutality against black men in 2017.  Then, Mr. Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem was widely met with anger and derision.  Now, it is being mirrored by police officers, themselves, all around the country.

President (impeached) Trump, seeing a chance to portray himself as patriotic, despite having avoided military service during wartime by getting a waiver for heel spurs, was one of the first to attack.

“You know, some owner is gonna do that,” said the president. “He’s gonna say, ‘That guy disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it. They don’t know it. They’re friends of mine, many of them. They don’t know it. They’ll be the most popular person, for a week. They’ll be the most popular person in this country.

“But do you know what’s hurting the game more than that [referees]? When people like yourselves turn on the television and you see those players taking the knee when they’re playing our great national anthem. The only thing you could do better is if you see it, even if it’s one player, leave the stadium. I guarantee things will stop. Things will stop. Just pick up and leave. Pick up and leave. Not the same game anymore, anyway.”

Mr. Trump doesn’t have a problem with the NFL profiting from displays of patriotism, but he does have a problem with players exercising the rights real patriots earned them: the right to protest, to dissent. 

As Vox writer Alex Beauchamp put it, “(Mr. Trump’s) saying that it’s wrong for black athletes to see professional sports’ rituals in the way they do. That it’s fine for the NFL to use patriotism to market itself but wrong for NFL players to use the opportunity the league created to draw attention to the problems of police violence and racism.”

The problem with this is if we believe we must compel people to participate in displays of patriotism, while depriving them of their right to use their freedom to express their concerns, if we must threaten their livelihoods and their futures to get them to stand during the National Anthem with their hands over their hearts, then there is really little reason for rational, thinking people to stand, at all.

In other words, if patriotism is forced, then it isn’t real patriotism.  So, if players in the NFL are forced to stand, there is no point in playing the Star Spangled Banner, because the patriotic zeal that playing the song is intended to inspire, is based on a lie.

As Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson reflected, “To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous, instead of a compulsory routine… is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds.”

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