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The COVID-19 pandemic has altered many behaviors in American life. Among them, for a while: the way the Dallas Mavericks opened their home games. Owner Mark Cuban ended the practice of playing the national anthem in the mostly empty arena. Cuban backtracked this week — after a sports website wrote about his decision and the NBA stepped in — which is too bad. The ban should have become permanent.
We're way too used to a practice that doesn’t make much sense: At athletic events, the assembled congregation rises, the flag waves and everyone either stands in rapt silence or starts in on “Oh say can you see" — singing a tune that, because of its range, is all but unmanageable by untrained voices.
The origins of a “national anthem” probably date to the singing of "La Marseillaise" late in the 18th century to rally citizens in France to repulse the invasion of the Prussians and the Austrians. The lyrics for “The Star-Spangled Banner” come from a poem, “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” written by Francis Scott Key after witnessing the bombardment of the fort by the British during the War of 1812. Paradoxically, the words were set to the music of a popular English song, written by John Stafford Smith, and one wag suggested that British troops fled in horror when they heard Americans sing it. “The Star-Spangled Banner” was designated the national anthem by congressional resolution on March 3, 1931.
But why is the anthem mandatory at sporting events and not at, say, rock concerts? Apparently, in the early decades of the 20th century sporting events were marred by drunkenness and hooliganism, and team owners believed that if they could cloak the games in nationalism it would provide at least a measure of respectability. “The Star-Spangled Banner” was sung during the seventh inning of Game 1 of the 1918 World Series, a year and a half into the Great War. Major League Baseball used it intermittently after World War I, and following World War II, the commissioner of the National Football League, Elmer Layden, required it for NFL games.
As sociologists say, once a precedent, twice a tradition; that is, until someone calls it into question or, in the case of this particular practice, tries to rejig the rote exercise into a higher expression of patriotism.
José Feliciano, the Puerto Rico-born singer and guitarist, may have opened the door with his bluesy rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in Detroit before Game 5 of the 1968 World Series between the Tigers and the St. Louis Cardinals. A week later, John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their black-gloved fists during the national anthem on the awards podium at the Mexico City Olympics. They wore black socks and no shoes to protest the persistence of poverty among African Americans.
More recently came quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s Black Lives Matter decision to kneel when the singing started at San Francisco 49ers games. Then-President Trump suggested that athletes who refuse to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner” should be fired, and he made a show of singing it at at least one gathering (he appeared not to know all of the words).
Kaepernick more or less was fired. He had led his team to the Super Bowl in 2013, but he has not played professional football since the 2016 season. You'd think Kaepernick’s stance was a sacrilege. In an age when religiosity is falling in the United States, sports may be filling the gap.
Some years ago, I made my only visit to Yankee Stadium. The game was a blowout, and we decided to leave early, but we were blocked on the way out by yellow-shirted security guards with their arms extended, gripping chains. We had committed the unpardonable sin of trying to leave the stadium during the singing of “God Bless America.”
How is that not a species of fascism?
With a somewhat terse statement Wednesday, Cuban and the NBA brought the Mavericks back into the fold. "With the NBA now in the process of welcoming fans back into their arenas,” the Mavericks would once again honor the national anthem tradition.
I’d say that makes as much sense as singing the song while we wait our turn at the post office or before sitting down at the blackjack table. Or outside big-box stores on Black Friday. Wouldn’t that be a good occasion for belting out "The Star-Spangled Banner"? After 9/11, let’s recall, President George W. Bush suggested that the highest form of patriotism was to go shopping.
Perhaps only when we sing the national anthem in line at Walmart will we appreciate the emptiness of the ritual, especially at a time when not all Americans experience this nation as the land of the free.
Randall Balmer, professor of religion at Dartmouth, is the author of more than a dozen books, including "Solemn Reverence: The Separation of Church and State in American Life."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.