So why do it? Why play the national anthem at sporting events at all?
It’s worth mulling. At a time when we need whatever unity we can find and sports might be one place to find it, the anthem could be a two-minute span when we agree that we’re all Americans, that we should be together rather than separate. It could remind us that — not very long ago — we had more in common than we did not. It’s a nice way to think, at least.
I also note that watching athletes find their voices and draw attention to their passions by kneeling during the anthem has been inspiring. Not everyone will agree, of course; indeed, there are those who are offended — and deeply. But Colin Kaepernick became an icon bigger and more important than football because the anthem was played pregame and he chose to kneel.
Yes, that inspired a president to say any football player who followed Kaepernick’s lead is a “son of a bitch.” But it also helped other athletes take up the issues Kaepernick was highlighting — police violence that disproportionately affects Black Americans and the social inequities and injustice behind that reality. With no pregame anthem, maybe there’s no way for the NBA to spread that message as powerfully as players did last summer in Orlando. Those images — two teams kneeling, together — they resonate, and they matter.
But there’s also plenty of reason to wonder whether the anthem’s time as a mandatory precursor to athletic events has passed. For one, it’s clearly watered down. Hearing it so often — 162 times in a baseball season, half that in basketball or hockey — makes each version less special. At most ballparks and arenas, there’s a hot dog-buying, finding-my-seat murmur beneath the song.
There’s also something silly about the ritual. When the Washington Capitals host the Philadelphia Flyers, they play only “The Star-Spangled Banner” because, ostensibly, both teams are American. When, say, the Toronto Maple Leafs are in town, they add, “O Canada.” Either way, the players from Russia and Sweden and the Czech Republic — as well as the United States and Canada — take to the ice when the anthem(s) are over. Who are we honoring here?
But in capitulating to the NBA’s wishes Wednesday, Cuban made some sense. He pointed out in a statement that he had always stood for the anthem at Mavericks games, with his hand over his heart.
“But we also hear the voices of those who do not feel the anthem represents them,” he went on. “We feel they also need to be respected and heard, because they have not been heard.
“The hope is that those who feel passionate about the anthem being played will be just as passionate in listening to those who do not feel it represents them.”
So here we are, at a moment when this little act — singing this 80-word song about a battle viewed from afar more than two centuries ago — can mean different things to different people. Those who want to wrap themselves in the flag and believe the song conveys what it means to be an American — “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave” — can absolutely believe that. But there also must be room for those who believe America isn’t as inclusive as it professes to be and that we need to keep working to reach those ideals.
Dropping the anthem from pregame rituals would be a convenient way to drop the conversation, to artificially isolate sports from everything the country is grappling with. But if 2020 showed anything, it’s that sports are inseparable from the issues society faces every year and every day. Athletes have powerful and important and informed voices, and they should be encouraged to use them. Fans have diverse beliefs in the value of rising as one, and that matters, too. There should be room for both views — and a time and a place to air them.
If the anthem hadn’t been sung before baseball games for close to a century, would I be suggesting we add it now? No, of course not. But it is a tradition with ties to normalcy — and not an insignificant history. From José Feliciano at the 1968 World Series to Whitney Houston at the Super Bowl in 1991, from moments both roiling and patriotic, there is a tradition here, and stripping sports of that feels too of the moment, too quick.
I have zero problem with Cuban initially deciding not to play the anthem at Mavericks games this season. His choice already achieved what we all should want: further discussion on what it means to be American. Hermetically sealing off sports from the rest of society isn’t a way to accomplish that. From the highest-profile pros to college kids and even high-schoolers, athletes have reimagined those two minutes as a time to grapple with our country’s triumphs and failings. Taking that away doesn’t feel like progress.
The anthem is polarizing because we live in a polarized society. But if striking it from pregame ceremonies would be reactionary, standing and singing in a lemur-like way isn’t especially meaningful.
Which brings us back to “rampart.” It’s both a line in “The Star-Spangled Banner” and a reminder that we don’t always know what we’re singing about. As it turns out, a rampart is a protective barrier. We need fewer of those, not more.