No national anthem?

Are John Stafford Smith and Francis Scott Key rolling over in their graves at the idea of no anthem before games? Or are we a little too cooped up to rationally discuss a song?

There you are, right hand over your left breast… your heart thumping, you singing at the top of your lungs, “Jose can you see on the lawn’s early light what so proudly we held at the twilight‘s last gleaning.” Sure you get some of the words wrong from time to time but for the most part you nail it. Sometimes in a variety of keys. But you feel good afterwards. You’re paying tribute to your country and your flag. It feels good to be an American. And that’s how it is… for most of us.

But not all. The medal ceremony and the playing of the national anthem was perhaps most famously used by John Carlos and Tommy Smith at the 1968 Olympic Games to protest inequalities and racism as protestors marched through the streets back home. Some of the people at those events were arrested or beaten without cause. Others burned buildings and looted stores. People were injured and killed. It was mayhem.

Five decades isn’t a long time. But it feels like it should be long enough that those events wouldn’t happen again and that people wouldn’t feel the need to protest the same things. But they do. And people bent on violence and destruction still accompany them. And in a new wrinkle, a whole new population of unhappy residents have also taken to the streets, protesting the stealing of an election, which if provable would be the epitome of an attack on our republic. But so far, all they’ve proven is Rudy Giuliani is bat-mess crazy and that if you get radicals on any extreme side of any issue, they’ll eventually meet in the same place, which in this case, was on top of a police officer, beating him to death.

And so it is that one of the most visible, non-violent, non-destructive, most effective protests is… athletes not singing a song at a sporting event in which they are participating. Think about that. Think about which you would have picked a year ago: 0.5 percent of the people in an arena not singing a song, or dozens of anarchists in the streets with rebar and bulletproof vests.

At first sports teams owners flipped their lids at the thought of athletes voicing their social views by not adding their voices to the chorus of, “Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes.” That’s always been one of my favorite parts. That haughty host of that foe is gonna get jacked at Fort McHenry!

Oh wait, you did know there are four stanzas to the song, right?

Also freaking out: veterans, partisan politicians eager to remind voters how ‘Merican they are, and people who just felt like… not paying respect to the flag was the same thing as attacking the country, attacking… us.

But now that we’ve been reminded that kneeling during a song is not the same thing as setting fire to a building, stealing a store owner’s property, threatening a journalist, infringing on others’ civil rights, killing an unarmed civilian or killing a police officer. Now, a year after one of the worst years in our history, the anthem was removed from the pregame lineup for one professional sports franchise, the Dallas Mavericks for the first game in which fans were allowed in, after having been barred due to Covid-19 restrictions.

The fingers pointed and the questions flew. Was it intentional? What was the meaning? Does Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban hate America? Is he preventing players from having the opportunity to protest? What is going on? People called him out for both things. Headlines raged, “Cuban Scraps National Anthem.” Newspaper publishers wonder why no one buys them anymore. Television news stations wonder why no one watches. Turns out, when you spend all of your time screaming and pointing fingers, people tend to tune you out.

Cuban responded on ESPN by saying the team hadn’t played the National Anthem… because there were no fans in the stands. Something that had been presented for the fans was not presented for teams full of foreign nationals and black players unhappy with systemic inequalities for twelve games. If an anthem isn’t played in the arena and no one is around to not hear it, did it actually not get played? Cuban also took to Twitter, calling out hand-wringing attackers, after they had read all of the inflammatory headlines.

“The National Anthem Police in this country are out of control. If you want to complain, complain to your boss and ask why they don’t play the National Anthem every day before you start work” 

Mark Cuban, Dallas Mavericks owner on Twitter.

He’s got a point. Joe’s Electrical doesn’t sing the anthem when the doors open. But, he also misses how the song has been ingrained in our culture and our public events for decades. Simply put, we’re used to it, even though there’s no legal mandate for it. But there are league mandates for it and many owners have done their best to sabre rattle on behalf of diehard fans who pay money for merchandise, catch every game on television or radio that they can, and who attend one game every six years because that’s all they can afford. Money talks and people fed up with protests of any kind have taken up woodworking, crocheting ugly blankets and long walks. Ratings for sports are in the toilet. Not long after social media honks tried, convicted, and executed Cuban’s patriotism, he announced the team was not permanently ditching the anthem. Indeed, the Mavericks stadium staff played it before Wednesday night’s game.

So, crisis averted for those having a crisis, but will there be another team that tries it for real? Then what?

The anthem has a 103-year history of being played at events. In a rare show of actual reporting, CNN did a story on the history of the marriage, dating back to the 1918 World Series. The NBA and NFL followed several decades later. Once, the Baltimore Orioles owner tried to scrap the tradition as the Korean War ended, claiming the frequent playing of the song diluted its impact. He was tarred, covered in oriole feathers and made to stand in a vat of spicy mustard dipping sauce while singing the anthem with half an apple pie in his mouth. To put it another way, fans complained.

For years, foreign-born players didn’t complain while playing in several North American sports leagues. But they didn’t protest, either. They either stood quietly or not at all while the anthem was played. Besides basketball and hockey, golf tournaments don’t have every player line the 18th fairway for the playing of the anthem. A couple of years ago, longtime soccer coach Bruce Arians said Major League Soccer should scrap the anthem because the players were mostly from outside the U.S.

But, again, the anthem isn’t specifically for him or the players, or the people who work stadium operations who have to stop what they’re doing or at least pretend to while the anthem is playing every day for 82 days or 162 days or however many. It’s for us, the citizens of this country, whether we super-duper like the country at the moment… or not. And I’d be shocked if a team tries to hit the dump button of ole Francis Scott and the Whalers.

Full disclosure: I’m not wearing pants. No, that’s not it. In all honesty, the anthem is important to me. I don’t attend a lot of games. But, when I do, I look forward to singing it and teaching my son the words. It reminds me and others of the sacrifices men made for this country to be free and then for the world to be free. I think of my dad every time I hear it. He taught me the words. Funny thing is, he didn’t like the anthem. He thought “America the Beautiful” was a much better tune.

Regardless, I understand how a nation that has allowed systems of power to keep certain populations under thumb isn’t doing all it can to be truly free and how a song espousing the bravery and honor of that country might ring a little hollow for those battling decades of unfair treatment. But I also understand there are a lot of people trying to do the right thing and they’re pissed at being labeled hateful racists because they love the flag and the lives that they lead. They love the ideal of this nation. And they like to celebrate that ideal. I don’t think they’re alone. In fact, I think they’re the vast majority. And I think most Americans who love the ideal of a free country, love the people who said screw you to the British, love equality for all, and love singing a 207 year-old song would also now agree after a year with a pandemic and riots in the streets and murder at the nation’s capitol: it’s better to have a national anthem with a few people silently protesting than to have no anthem at all.

So grab your beer and your hotdog and do your best to keep them from getting on your jersey with someone else’s name on it. Don’t sing. Kneel. Take a step back. Raise a fist. Whatever. Or… sing your little heart out as loud as you can.

You and I know, we sing it better than the person on the field anyway.

“And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!”

The last two lines of the last three stanzas of Francis Scott Key’s “Defence of Fort M’Henry” set to the music of British composer John Stafford Smith. Wait. The tune was written by a Brit? What the bloody hell!

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