The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Mark Cuban had it right the first time. Sports should stop playing the anthem.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban arrives at the NBA Awards in Santa Monica, Calif., on June 24, 2019.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban arrives at the NBA Awards in Santa Monica, Calif., on June 24, 2019. (Richard Shotwell/Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)
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Mike Wise, a former Post sports columnist, is an author and the host of “The Mike Wise Show.”

In November, Mark Cuban quietly told some of his employees to stop playing the national anthem before the Dallas Mavericks basketball games. It took more than a month for anyone to notice; more than 10 Maverick home games had already passed when the Athletic broke the “news” that the music had stopped.

Still, it hit a nerve. Depending whether you’re on the Blue or Red team today, Cuban was transformed overnight into either a beacon of tolerance — or a leftist libflake who reviles the republic for which it stands.

This being 2021, there is no Mr. In-Between.

First, the Nationalism Police weighed in. Among them the lieutenant governor of Texas, Dan Patrick: “Your decision to cancel our National Anthem at @dallasmavs games is a slap in the face to every American & an embarrassment to Texas. Sell the franchise & some Texas Patriots will buy it. We ARE the land of free & the home of the brave.”

Then NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and Cuban had a genial chat. That leash the league gave teams to do what they felt was appropriate after the summer of 2020? Gone. Play-the-anthem league policy was reinstated, including at Mavericks games, last week. The moment for change had passed.

Cuban had it right the first time. Like the flag before and after Jan. 6, we’ve now weaponized the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Wholly supporting its continued inclusion at domestic sporting events is our new shallow-end referendum on patriotism. The anthem has already split the country.

Organized sports have cheapened the national anthem for decades. The lyrics and the music have been co-opted by professional leagues determined to forge an unneeded alliance between sports and nationalism.

Roger Goodell’s NFL uses America as its brand, wrapping itself in 100-yard flags, military fighter-jet flyovers and, by God, quarterbacks who stand for the national anthem. To be pro-American is to be pro-football — and revel in the absurdity of it all, the way Joe Buck and Troy Aikman did on Fox last year when their mics were still on:

Aikman: “That’s a lot of jet fuel just to do a little flyover.”

Buck, snarkily: “That’s your hard-earned money and your tax dollars at work!”

But Cuban has more supporters than the pregame shows would admit. “This should happen everywhere,” New Orleans Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy tweeted on Wednesday, supporting Cuban’s original decision. “If you think the anthem needs to be played before sporting events, then play it before every movie, concert, church service and the start of every work day at every business. What good reason is there to play the anthem before a game?”

None, really, other than at the World Cup, the Olympics and maybe a state high school or college national final.

There is a silent majority out there, tired of the hate being spewed in the name of patriotism. They see the hypocrisy, how the same far-right patriots who decry not playing an anthem at a game also remain silent when the metal pole from the Stars & Stripes is used to beat and bloody a police officer on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Not enough of us listen when millions of people say the anthem doesn’t represent them.

“The real issue is: How do you express the voices of those that feel the anthem doesn’t represent them or cause them consternation?” Cuban rightly asked. He was talking about Black and brown people in this country.

Knowing Cuban for more than two decades, I can say he is unsubtle, unpredictable, unnuanced and, though the NBA has fined him more than $3 million for eviscerating referees and the league more than a dozen times, unembarrassed.

What the billionaire owner and “Shark Tank” regular is not: un-American.

Cuban years ago founded the Fallen Patriot Fund to help families of U.S. military personnel killed or injured in the line of duty. But in these polarizing, Red vs. Blue times, he’s suddenly cast as an owner who wouldn’t play a song — a song penned by a man who enslaved people, a song that had a stanza excised in the 20th century for obvious reasons:

No refuge could save the hireling & slave

From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave:

And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave

O’er the land of the free & the home of the brave.

We’re too polarized, politically poisoned, to toss the anthem from sports now. But in time, the anthem needs to be ejected from all the games. And when that happens, there will be a benefit: When you finally hear the lyrics and music, they might actually feel special.

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