The NBA order got me thinking: Should we play the national anthem before athletic events? I think the tradition should continue.
First, a little history. Francis Scott Key wrote a poem that became the national anthem after watching a large group of British ships bomb a much smaller American force at Baltimore’s Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. Despite 25 hours of bombing, U.S. soldiers defended the fort and raised the flag.
The patriotic poem, set to music, began playing at sporting events during the 1918 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs. This was when American soldiers were fighting in Europe during World War I.
Slowly, the tradition caught on, especially after “The Star-Spangled Banner” was officially adopted as the national anthem in 1931. After World War II in the 1940s, the National Football League ordered the song played before all its games. Soon, the song was played and sung at most sports events.
I understand that some people object to the national anthem. I don’t mind if those people sit or kneel or refuse to sing during the song. In the past few years, athletes such as Colin Kaepernick and others have used the national anthem to peacefully protest issues such as police killings of African Americans, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
I also understand playing the national anthem at every game risks making it less special. Thousands of performances a year at everything from the Super Bowl to a high school basketball game can make the song sound routine.
But sometimes the song can be thrilling. After the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, for example, the playing of the national anthem symbolized standing up to terrorism.
People often mention Whitney Houston’s performance at Super Bowl XXV (25) in 1991 or local singer D.C. Washington at Game 3 of the 2019 World Series at Nationals Park as outstanding versions of the song.
But my favorite was when teenager Natalie Gilbert sang it at an NBA playoff game between the Portland Trail Blazers and Dallas Mavericks in 2003 (look on YouTube). Natalie started the song, stumbled over the lyrics and stopped singing. She was clearly embarrassed.
But Maurice Cheeks, the Trail Blazers head coach, stepped forward and began to sing with her. With Cheeks’s help, Natalie recovered and finished the song as the crowd sang along.
At its best, that is what the national anthem is. A small reminder that we can survive small stumbles and even large problems, but only if we work together.