My memories of those nights are vivid because it always seemed to me that the entire audience leaped to its feet. The feeling was, “This is a special, once-a-year occasion.”
And it was.
I thought back to that this week, when the national anthem again entered the news, this time because Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, ordered his team’s home games this season to start without playing the anthem. Since there were no fans in the arena, no one noticed — through 13 preseason and regular season games. When someone (a writer for the Athletic) did notice, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver asked Cuban to follow the NBA directive to play the anthem pregame and Cuban agreed.
But Cuban, like my dad — who fought in the Pacific theater in World War II but wasn’t a screeching “love it or leave it” patriot — had it right. The habitual repetition has taken away much of the anthem’s power.
When I was 12, I went to a New York Knicks game and was stunned when four Black men seated a few seats down from me and my friends didn’t stand for the anthem. When I asked one of them why he and his friends didn’t stand, he shrugged and said: “That flag doesn’t mean anything to us. Why stand?”
I went home that night and asked my parents about that. My dad’s answer was direct: “I hope you always stand, John, but I also hope you understand and respect anyone who chooses not to stand.”
I have done what my father asked all those years ago: I stand, but I have no issues with those who choose not to.
Fifty years ago, not standing for the anthem felt pretty much unheard of, which may explain why I honestly thought it was against the law until that Knicks game. An athlete not standing was almost unthinkable. Now, standing or not standing for the anthem has become one of the polarizing issues in our polarized country. It started with Colin Kaepernick; it grew during the protests of 2017, fueled by Donald Trump’s rant to fire any “son of a bitch” who didn’t stand; and it reached a crescendo in the wake of George Floyd’s death last May.
Kaepernick was making a point about White police brutality directed at Black victims. Many in the Black Lives Matter movement are making the same point — or a similar one. The Trump-like rants against those who don’t stand haven’t gone away, but there is an understanding among many that there’s a reason for the frustration being displayed by those who kneel during the anthem.
Because I wrote a book years ago about the Army-Navy football rivalry and have maintained connections with many from the two schools, I know a lot of veterans. Almost unanimously, they will tell you two things: I stand for the anthem, but I fought to ensure that those who choose not to stand can do so without being threatened with arrest.
One of the biggest complaints coming from White America during the anthem protests in 2017 was that athletes should not bring politics to the playing field, that sports should be separate from politics.
That is, at best, naive. Politics have been part of sports for years and years, from the despicable U.S. Olympic Committee chairman Avery Brundage holding Jewish runners out of a relay at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 so as not to offend Adolf Hitler; to the still despicable Brundage, then chairman of the International Olympic Committee, tossing Tommie Smith and John Carlos out of the Mexico City Olympics in 1968 for their black-gloved protest on the medal stand; to Brundage (yet again) declaring “the Games must go on” four years later after the murder of 11 Israeli athletes in Munich.
The most recent mixing of politics and sports came Sunday at the Super Bowl, when the NFL — which has made wrapping itself in the flag an art form — insisted on playing both “America the Beautiful,” and ‘The Star Spangled Banner” before the game. The latter, by the way, is meant to be played or sung in a little over a minute. The two singers Sunday stretched it well beyond two minutes — not atypical at all nowadays.
Which brings us to Cuban. It’s worth noting what he said about not playing the anthem: that he always stands with his hand on his heart but that he understands there are people who are uncomfortable with the playing of the song.
My feeling is the less often we are reminded of how polarized we have become over the last four years, the better. But if Cuban was correct about the anthem’s current polarizing nature, my dad was on to something else: Because it is played so often, it has ceased to be as special.
I always have said that the one time each year I get chills during the anthem is at the Army-Navy game, when I see 8,000 hands — 4,000 cadets, 4,000 midshipmen — go to salute position as soon as the song starts. The combined cadet-midshipmen choir sings the song in about 75 seconds.
The song should be played at Army-Navy. It should also be played on other special occasions — the Fourth of July, Memorial Day — and at major sporting events: national championship games, the Olympics, Game 1 of the World Series and, yes, the Super Bowl.
If you want to honor America at other events, play “America the Beautiful” or “God Bless America.” They’re patriotic, and they’re better songs, too.
I always have remembered my dad’s request that I stand for the anthem. But I don’t love when a singer takes forever to reach “the home of the brave” or when a public address announcer demands that people “stand and remove your hats.” If kneeling during the anthem is injecting politics into sports, so is that request.
There is something to be said for my colleague Barry Svrluga’s notion that continuing to play the anthem nightly gives people the chance to stand with hand-on-heart or kneel, depending on how they feel. But I love the idea of getting chills during the anthem, the way I did on opening night at the opera, the way I still do at the Army-Navy game.
And as the son of a World War II veteran, I would enjoy going back to that feeling when the anthem is played, regardless of whether the people next to me have their hands on their hearts or are kneeling. Let’s make the anthem matter again, whenever it is played and wherever it is played.