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Brittney Griner, Brianna Turner call for WNBA to stop playing national anthem this season

Brittney Griner won’t be on the court for the national anthem before any of the Phoenix Mercury’s games. (John Locher/Associated Press File)

As far as Brittney Griner, the Phoenix Mercury center and 2019 WNBA MVP runner-up, is concerned, there’s no valid reason for playing the national anthem before sports events and she plans to take a stand by continuing to remain in the locker room while it is played.

“I honestly feel we should not play the national anthem during our season,” Griner said (via the Arizona Republic). “I think we should take that much of a stand.”

No players were on the court Saturday when the Mercury played the Los Angeles Sparks in a protest calling for justice for Breonna Taylor, a black woman who was shot and killed by police in Louisville in March, and other victims of police brutality.

“I’m not going to be out there for the national anthem. If the league continues to want to play it, that’s fine,” she added. “It will be all season long, I’ll not be out there. I feel like more are going to probably do the same thing. I can only speak for myself. At the Olympics, I understand you’re playing for your country at that point.”

Griner chose to wear Taylor’s name on her uniform this season, with WNBA and NBA players allowed to add victims’ names to their apparel. “We don’t get asked enough what’s going on in our communities, and I think that’s a shame,” Griner said earlier this month. “Yeah, we’re here to play basketball. But basketball doesn’t mean anything in a world where we can’t just live. We can’t wake up and do whatever we want to do. Go for a run, go to the store to buy some candy, drive your car without the fear of being wrongfully pulled over.

“I just want to challenge everybody to do more. Write the story that might be tough. Take a chance. Ask a question that’s tough. Don’t let it be silent.”

Griner said Monday that she believed “we should not play the national anthem during our season,” a 22-game schedule compressed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Like Colin Kaepernick and others in sports, she is clear that her message does not concern the military or the flag. It’s about police brutality and social injustice.

“I don’t mean that in any disrespect to our country. My dad was in Vietnam and a law officer for 30 years,” she said. “I wanted to be a cop before basketball. I do have pride for my country.”

Brianna Turner, Griner’s teammate, agreed and took her opposition a step further.

“I personally don’t think it belongs in sports,” she said, adding that “it’s not played at Walmart, it’s not played when you go to Six Flags. Why is it played before sporting events?”

The anthem has part of sports events for more than 100 years, Mark Clague, a University of Michigan musicology professor who has studied the anthem, told NPR in 2018. “The first time we have ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ played for any type of sporting event is actually May 15, 1862, in Brooklyn, N.Y.”

Francis Scott Key put words to a popular melody in 1814 and the Brooklyn event was the dedication of a baseball field. “They hire a band because it’s a big celebration,” Clague said. “When you have live music in 1862, during the Civil War, you’re going to play patriotic songs. So they play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ sort of coincidentally. It’s not part of a ritual; [it’s] not played to start the game.”

The song was played only for Opening Day at baseball games throughout the rest of that century and was played as patriotism surged during the First World War. The growing prevalence of public address systems contributed to its use, too, and it became the official anthem in 1931. “It became a kind of obligatory, essential community need to have ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ played at every sporting event,” Clague said, “to the point where it became a focus of the game.”