NBA

How do Americans feel about the anthem at sporting events? It depends which Americans you ask.

Fans watch a flyover during the national anthem before a game between the Buffalo Bills and the Denver Broncos in 2019. (John Munson/AP)

A few years ago, Aaron Stinchcomb II dropped to his knee when the national anthem played before a University of Mississippi home football game. It was an impromptu, solemn gesture to acknowledge racial inequalities in America.

Stinchcomb didn’t record it. Didn’t post anything on social media. Had anyone challenged him, which no one did, Stinchcomb was prepared to defend his actions — especially to anyone who might have viewed the protest as being aimed at the troops. Born on an Air Force base, the grandson of one of the first Black Marines, Stinchcomb has an affection for the military that couldn’t be questioned.

“I’m not an activist. But I support activism,” said Stinchcomb, a 29-year-old personal trainer in Woodstock, Ga. “I’ve always been encouraged to stand up for what is right. Not politically right. But what is truly right.”

Though it took place during the national anthem, Stinchcomb’s act wasn’t an “anthem protest.” He believes the song should be played before sporting events, but he understands those who don’t. Well before Colin Kaepernick led people to examine the full lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner” — before the Dallas Mavericks briefly stopped playing the anthem this season and before the Wisconsin State Assembly passed a bill requiring it to be played before events at publicly funded venues — Stinchcomb knew the song’s history. He knew it was written by a former enslaver who used the third stanza to reference a blight on American history: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave ...”

“I have no problem with the national anthem despite its crude origins,” Stinchcomb said in a phone interview. “I have no issue with people of color’s refusal to acknowledge it because of its crude history.”

Those views align with most Americans’, according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll conducted in March that found that 84 percent of Americans support the anthem being played or sung before professional sporting events. Seventy-one percent feel positive when the song plays. The survey was conducted in collaboration with the University of Maryland’s Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and its Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement.

The results also hint at the stark racial divide among Americans about how they feel about the song. While four-fifths of White Americans and two-thirds of both Hispanics and Asian Americans say the anthem makes them feel positive, a much smaller 35 percent of Black Americans share those emotions. And 22 percent of Black Americans say they feel negative when they hear the song at sporting events.

Fewer than 4 in 10 Black Americans say the national anthem makes them feel positive

Q: When the national anthem is played or sung at sporting events, does it make you feel…?

Neither positive

nor negative

Positive

Negative

71%

22%

6%

All adults

80%

16%

3%

White

35%

42%

22%

Black

67%

25%

8%

Hispanic

67%

27%

6%

Asian

Note: "No opinion" not shown.

Source: March 12-18, 2021, Washington Post-UMD poll among a random national sample of 1,500 U.S. adults with an error margin of +/- 3 percentage points. Conducted with U-Md.'s Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement and Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism. Error margins larger among subgroups.

 

ARTUR GALOCHA/THE WASHINGTON POST

Fewer than 4 in 10 Black Americans say the national anthem makes them feel positive

Q: When the national anthem is played or sung at sporting events, does it make you feel…?

Neither positive

nor negative

Positive

Negative

71%

22%

6%

All adults

80%

16%

3%

White

35%

42%

22%

Black

67%

25%

8%

Hispanic

67%

27%

6%

Asian

Note: "No opinion" not shown.

Source: March 12-18, 2021, Washington Post-UMD poll among a random national sample of 1,500 U.S. adults with an error margin of +/- 3 percentage points. Conducted with U-Md.'s Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement and Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism. Error margins larger among subgroups.

 

ARTUR GALOCHA/THE WASHINGTON POST

Fewer than 4 in 10 Black Americans say the national anthem makes them feel positive

Q: When the national anthem is played or sung at sporting events, does it make you feel…?

Neither positive

nor negative

Positive

Negative

71%

22%

6%

All adults

80%

16%

3%

White

35%

42%

22%

Black

67%

25%

8%

Hispanic

67%

27%

6%

Asian

Note: "No opinion" not shown.

Source: March 12-18, 2021, Washington Post-UMD poll among a random national sample of 1,500 U.S. adults with an error margin of +/- 3 percentage points. Conducted with U-Md.'s Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement and Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism. Error margins larger among subgroups.

 

ARTUR GALOCHA/THE WASHINGTON POST

Fewer than 4 in 10 Black Americans say the national anthem makes them feel positive

Q: When the national anthem is played or sung at sporting events, does it make you feel…?

Neither positive

nor negative

Positive

Negative

71%

22%

6%

All adults

80%

16%

3%

White

35%

42%

22%

Black

67%

25%

8%

Hispanic

67%

27%

6%

Asian

Note: "No opinion" not shown.

Source: March 12-18, 2021, Washington Post-UMD poll among a random national sample of 1,500 U.S. adults with an error margin of +/- 3 percentage points. Conducted with U-Md.'s Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement and Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism. Error margins larger among subgroups.

 

ARTUR GALOCHA/THE WASHINGTON POST

No more than 8 percent of other racial or ethnic groups had a negative reaction. Just over 4 in 10 (42 percent) Black adults said they feel neither positive nor negative about hearing the anthem, 20 percentage points higher than adults overall.

Asked to describe, in their own words, what the anthem represents when played at sporting events, 31 percent of Americans overall mentioned pride, patriotism or freedom. Another 19 percent cited respect or honor for the country or military; 12 percent said it represents unity. But Black Americans were less likely to mention these broadly positive interpretations, with 23 percent of Black adults volunteering that the anthem is hurtful or not representative of them. Only 1 percent of White adults said the same.

White Americans are more likely to say the anthem represents pride, freedom and patriotism while Black Americans are more likely to espouse negative views

Q: In a few words, what does the U.S. national anthem represent to you when it is played or sung at sporting events? (Open-ended; responses grouped by category)

0%

10%

20%

30%

40%

Black

Asian

Hispanic

All

White

Pride/Patriotism/Freedom

18%

19%

29%

31%

35%

Respect/Honor for country

19%

7%

14%

22%

Unity

8%

12%

Negative views of anthem

9%

6%

30%

Apathy/Indifference

9%

Tradition/Ritual

7%

Note: “Other” and “No opinion” not included.

Source: March 12-18, 2021, Washington Post-UMD poll among a random national sample of 1,500 U.S. adults with an error margin of +/- 3 percentage points. Conducted with U-Md.'s Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement and Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism. Error margins larger among subgroups.

 

ARTUR GALOCHA/THE WASHINGTON POST

White Americans are more likely to say the anthem represents pride, freedom and patriotism while Black Americans are more likely to espouse negative views

Q: In a few words, what does the U.S. national anthem represent to you when it is played or sung at sporting events? (Open-ended; responses grouped by category)

0%

10%

20%

30%

40%

Black

Asian

Hispanic

All

White

Pride/Patriotism/Freedom

31%

18%

19%

29%

35%

Respect/Honor for country

19%

7%

14%

22%

Unity

12%

8%

Negative views of anthem

9%

6%

30%

Apathy/Indifference

9%

Tradition/Ritual

7%

Note: “Other” and “No opinion” not included.

Source: March 12-18, 2021, Washington Post-UMD poll among a random national sample of 1,500 U.S. adults with an error margin of +/- 3 percentage points. Conducted with U-Md.'s Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement and Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism. Error margins larger among subgroups.

 

ARTUR GALOCHA/THE WASHINGTON POST

White Americans are more likely to say the anthem represents pride, freedom and patriotism while Black Americans are more likely to espouse negative views

Q: In a few words, what does the U.S. national anthem represent to you when it is played or sung at sporting events? (Open-ended; responses grouped by category)

0%

10%

20%

30%

40%

Black

Asian

Hispanic

All

White

Pride/Patriotism/Freedom

18%

19%

29%

31%

35%

Respect/Honor for country

19%

7%

14%

22%

Unity

8%

12%

Negative views of anthem

6%

9%

30%

Apathy/Indifference

9%

Tradition/Ritual

7%

Note: “Other” and “No opinion” not included.

Source: March 12-18, 2021, Washington Post-UMD poll among a random national sample of 1,500 U.S. adults with an error margin of +/- 3 percentage points. Conducted with U-Md.'s Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement and Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism. Error margins larger among subgroups.

 

ARTUR GALOCHA/THE WASHINGTON POST

White Americans are more likely to say the anthem represents pride, freedom and patriotism while Black Americans are more likely to espouse negative views

Q: In a few words, what does the U.S. national anthem represent to you when it is played or sung at sporting events? (Open-ended; responses grouped by category)

0%

10%

20%

30%

40%

Black

Asian

Hispanic

All

White

Pride/Patriotism/Freedom

18%

19%

29%

31%

35%

Respect/Honor for country

19%

7%

14%

22%

Unity

8%

12%

Negative views of anthem

6%

9%

30%

Apathy/Indifference

9%

Tradition/Ritual

7%

Note: “Other” and “No opinion” not included.

Source: March 12-18, 2021, Washington Post-UMD poll among a random national sample of 1,500 U.S. adults with an error margin of +/- 3 percentage points. Conducted with U-Md.'s Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement and Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism. Error margins larger among subgroups.

 

ARTUR GALOCHA/THE WASHINGTON POST

Rifts in a tradition

Francis Scott Key wrote “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” the poem that would become the national anthem, in 1814 after seeing the flag waving above a fort during a United States victory over the British in the War of 1812. The lyrics were added to the tune of an English drinking song and quickly became popular.

The song has been played at sporting events for nearly 150 years, dating from when it was used to commemorate a new stadium in New York during the Civil War. Early in the 20th century, it was played at military events and, most famously, during the 1918 World Series. It officially was declared the national anthem in 1931; by World War II, it was played before every baseball game, plus movies and other events, growing into a cultural mainstay.

Some Black Americans have long found discomfort in the tradition. A quarter-century after he integrated Major League Baseball in 1947, Jackie Robinson, who was drafted and served in the Army during World War II, wrote in his autobiography, “I Never Had It Made,” that he couldn’t stand and sing the anthem or salute the flag because “I know that I am a black man in a white world.”

But Black superstars have also helped fuel the ritual’s resonance. Marvin Gaye made it cool at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles, adding a little hip-moving rhythm to a song that usually requires listeners to stand at attention. Whitney Houston belted out one of the most powerful and memorable renditions before Super Bowl XXV in 1991, at the onset of the Persian Gulf War.

In the late 1960s, then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle introduced flyovers and mandated that players stand with their helmets tucked under their left arms and right hands over their hearts. Over the past decade, the military has paid the league millions to stage patriotic ceremonies before games. The ritual has been criticized for manufacturing nationalism, but the practice continues.

“I feel the song should be played in regards to paying homage for fallen soldiers and airmen,” Stinchcomb said. “We need something that ties us together as a country.”

Steven Plantone, 65, a White retired former federal law enforcement officer based in Philadelphia, agreed. “The anthem should be something that everybody can agree on,” he said in an interview after participating in The Post’s survey. “When I hear the anthem, that reminds me of all the good things about America. You get goose bumps.”

Lisa English, 64, a retired health-care worker from Rose Hill, N.C., waves a flag outside her home. “To me, it’s a history lesson. It’s part of our natural history, and I think it should remain that way,” she said.

She’s a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution; her seventh great grandfather served in the Revolutionary War. A Tennessee native, English said she would always stand when the anthem was played at University of Tennessee football games. She once attended a game shortly after having surgery on her leg, and the cast kept her from standing when the song was played.

“I didn’t get up, and it made me feel horrible,” English said.

Older Americans such as English and Plantone drive support for the tradition: 86 percent of seniors say hearing the anthem makes them feel positive, compared with 51 percent of adults under 30.

Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid kneel in protest during the national anthem. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

A protest soundtrack

Given all it represents, the ritual has provided the perfect platform for protest. And even when the song is more soundtrack than target, there’s blowback. That tracks: The call for equal treatment of Black Americans has long been met with pushback more aggressive than the silent protests themselves.

John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their black-gloved fists as the song played during the medal ceremony for the 200-meter dash during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and were kicked out of the Olympic Village.

Denver Nuggets star Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the anthem in 1996, saying the flag was a symbol of oppression and tyranny. Then-commissioner David Stern suspended him for a game, and Abdul-Rauf reached an agreement with the league to stand, lower his head and pray during the song.

When Kaepernick sat — and later took a knee — during the anthem, he was harshly and falsely criticized as being anti-military, including by President Donald Trump. After Kaepernick’s contract ended with San Francisco, he never found work in the league again.

The Post-UMD poll finds Americans continue to divide along racial and partisan lines over athletes who kneel during the anthem. Eight in 10 Black Americans said athletes who kneel during the anthem represent their beliefs, including almost 6 in 10 who said they do “a great deal.” A majority of Asian Americans (64 percent) and Hispanic Americans (54 percent) said kneeling protesters represent their beliefs, too, though far smaller shares said they do so “a great deal.” Among White Americans, 37 percent said kneeling athletes represent their beliefs, while 62 percent said they don’t represent what they think.

The partisan divide is even starker, with 76 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents saying athletes who kneel during the anthem to protest racial inequality represent them, compared with 14 percent of those who identify or lean Republican.

“Any person with any cognitive ability can tell that it’s not about the flag. It’s about somebody’s race. [Kaepernick] wasn’t disrespecting anyone,” said Tracee Stewart, a 37-year-old educational psychologist from Fontana, Calif., who is Black. She said leagues shouldn’t dictate whether players participate in forced patriotism. “I think it’s a form of control, which goes against American principles. Like, ‘We can make you do it, so you need to do it.’ ”

Kaepernick’s protest resulted in an examination of the song itself, leading many to discover that third stanza, which is never performed but is disturbing or painful to many. Key was a lawyer and amateur poet whose wealth was amassed largely from human bondage. In addition to profiting from the labor of enslaved people, Key also viewed Africans in America as “a distinct and inferior race of people.” The reference to “slave” wasn’t merely because it rhymed with “brave.”

Stinchcomb’s upbringing — he grew up on military bases in three different countries — gives him a unique perspective on American history, he said. He has had debates, he said, about the song with his father, Aaron Sr., who helped integrate schools in Fayetteville, Ga. The younger Stinchcomb always comes away with the opinion that the song, along with documents written by slaveholding Founding Fathers, represents what America hopes to be.

But for a song meant to unite the country to have such a blatant reference to the heart of its racial division — it’s no wonder there is uneasiness among some Black people when they hear it.

“It’s not very flattering to people of color,” he said, “and their contributions to this country.”

Mark Cuban, whose Dallas Mavericks stopped playing the anthem for part of this season, said he respects the passion “people have for the anthem and the flag. But we also loudly hear the voices of those who feel the anthem does not represent them.” (LM Otero/AP)

Pregame silence

Thirteen games: That’s how long the Dallas Mavericks went, this preseason and regular season, without playing the anthem in their arena. Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA team, explained the decision by saying he respects the passion “people have for the anthem and the flag. But we also loudly hear the voices of those who feel the anthem does not represent them.”

The silence went mostly unnoticed for a while because the pandemic forced teams to play without fans. But once the media picked up on it, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver ended it quickly, making it clear that teams are required to participate in the pregame tradition, regardless of whether paying customers are in the building.

Americans largely agree. When asked how they would feel if professional sports leagues stopped playing or singing the anthem before games, nearly 6 in 10 Americans (57 percent) say they support playing the anthem and would be upset if the practice ended. “Where else would they hear it?” English said.

Nearly 6 in 10 Americans say they would feel upset if sports leagues stopped playing the national anthem before events

Q: Do you support or oppose the national anthem being played or sung before professional sporting events in the U.S.?

(Among U.S. adults)

Support

Oppose

84%

16%

If support:

Q: If U.S. professional sports leagues stopped playing or singing the national anthem before games, would you feel…?

Upset if not played

Not upset

57%

26%

Note: "No opinion" not shown.

Source: March 12-18, 2021, Washington Post-UMD poll among a random national sample of 1,500 U.S. adults with an error margin of +/- 3 percentage points. Conducted with U-Md.'s Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement and Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism.

 

ARTUR GALOCHA/THE WASHINGTON POST

Nearly 6 in 10 Americans say they would feel upset if sports leagues stopped playing the national anthem before events

Q: Do you support or oppose the national anthem being played or sung before professional sporting events in the U.S.?

(Among U.S. adults)

Support

Oppose

84%

16%

If support:

Q: If U.S. professional sports leagues stopped playing or singing the national anthem before games, would you feel…?

Upset if not played

Not upset

57%

26%

Note: "No opinion" not shown.

Source: March 12-18, 2021, Washington Post-UMD poll among a random national sample of 1,500 U.S. adults with an error margin of +/- 3 percentage points. Conducted with U-Md.'s Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement and Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism.

 

ARTUR GALOCHA/THE WASHINGTON POST

Nearly 6 in 10 Americans say they would feel upset if sports leagues stopped playing the national anthem before events

Q: Do you support or oppose the national anthem being played or sung before professional sporting events in the U.S.? (Among U.S. adults)

Support

Oppose

84%

16%

If support:

Q: If U.S. professional sports leagues stopped playing or singing the national anthem before games, would you feel…?

Upset if not played

Not upset

57%

26%

Note: "No opinion" not shown.

Source: March 12-18, 2021, Washington Post-UMD poll among a random national sample of 1,500 U.S. adults with an error margin of +/- 3 percentage points. Conducted with U-Md.'s Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement and Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism.

 

ARTUR GALOCHA/THE WASHINGTON POST

Nearly 6 in 10 Americans say they would feel upset if sports leagues stopped playing the national anthem before events

Q: Do you support or oppose the national anthem being played or sung before professional sporting events in the U.S.? (Among U.S. adults)

Support

Oppose

84%

16%

If support:

Q: If U.S. professional sports leagues stopped playing or singing the national anthem before games, would you feel…?

Upset if not played

Not upset

57%

26%

Note: "No opinion" not shown.

Source: March 12-18, 2021, Washington Post-UMD poll among a random national sample of 1,500 U.S. adults with an error margin of +/- 3 percentage points. Conducted with U-Md.'s Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement and Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism.

 

ARTUR GALOCHA/THE WASHINGTON POST

“Playing it and somebody kneeling is better than not playing it at all. I don’t think they should kneel. I think they should demonstrate in another way,” Plantone said. “But not playing it at all is even worse.”

Again, though, that sentiment is most prevalent among White adults (68 percent), the poll shows. It dips to 51 percent of Hispanic adults, 45 percent of Asian Americans and 24 percent of Black Americans. About a third of Black Americans say they would not be upset if sports teams stopped playing the anthem before games (34 percent), and another 41 percent oppose playing it at all.

“I don’t think that it’s appropriate because it’s not inclusive,” Stewart said. “It was not something that was for all.”

As Stinchcomb left that Mississippi football game, he said, a World War II veteran approached and told him that he saw Stinchcomb kneeling. Stinchcomb paused, unaware which direction the conversation would go. He said the veteran, who was White, told Stinchcomb the gesture was a respectful way to protest while honoring those who served this country.

“If someone is willing to have a conversation,” Stinchcomb said, “that’s the first olive branch of change, right?”

The Post-UMD poll was conducted from March 12 to 18, 2021, online and included a random sample of 1,500 adult Americans through the SSRS Probability Panel. Overall results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three points. The error margin is four points among the sample of 875 White adults, 8.5 points among the sample of 217 Black adults, 7.5 points among the sample of 277 Hispanic adults, and 12 points among the sample of 104 Asian adults.

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