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The ritual of playing the national anthem at American sporting events has been a source of intense controversy ever since then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling to protest against police violence in 2016.
As major sports leagues look to return from a months-long hiatus caused by the coronavirus pandemic, a new debate around the anthem is emerging: Should it be performed before games at all?
Major League Soccer announced it will not be playing the anthem before games when it returns next week because fans won't be in the stands. One of the league’s most prominent coaches argued for permanently eliminating the pregame ritual, which he called “inappropriate.” A semipro soccer team in Tulsa, Okla., recently announced it will instead play Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” before its home matches.
The tradition of playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at sporting events dates back to the 1918 World Series, when it was used to enliven a somber crowd in Chicago during World War I. It was played at other ballparks on special occasions for the next few decades. The NFL became the first league to require it be performed before every game around the end of World War II. The other leagues soon followed, cementing a tradition that endures today.
Why there’s debate
Many of the arguments for ending the ritual of playing the anthem before games echo Kaepernick’s rationale for kneeling. While the song may be a source of pride for many, others see it a symbol of an unbalanced system that harms people of color. “The Star-Spangled Banner” was written by Francis Scott Key in 1814. Key was a slave owner, and the song’s complete lyrics include a verse that refers to the deaths of slaves during the War of 1812. To critics of the anthem, these racist roots exemplify the false promise of equality that the American system was founded upon.
Others argue that the anthem puts athletes in an unfair position, in which any action they take — standing, kneeling or something else — will be scrutinized as a political statement when that may not be their intention. Overusing the song can also dilute its meaning, some say.
Advocates for keeping the anthem at sporting events say it creates an opportunity for unity among divided groups of people. The country may not have achieved true freedom and equality, but the pursuit of those ideals is worth celebrating, they argue. Others say the controversy around anthem protests is the reason why the tradition should continue, since it would be difficult for an athlete to draw the same level of attention to their cause.
For now, Major League Soccer is the only North American sports league to announce it won’t be playing the anthem before games. The NFL is reportedly planning add a performance of “Lift Ev'ry Voice And Sing,” a song commonly known as the Black national anthem, to its pregame events during the first week of its season.
For many, the anthem represents a racist system
“The truth some people don’t want to accept is that the flag and the anthem can’t mean the same thing for everyone if America’s institutions don’t protect everyone the same way.” — Caitlin Murray, Yahoo Sports
The anthem is a celebration of America’s accomplishments
“I know what this song stands for. I know it doesn’t discriminate or oppress, in fact, it inspires us to fight against those things. The feeling I get in my heart, the chill on my neck, that brief moment acknowledging generationally shared sacrifice at a ball game or any other indulgence of American prosperity matters.” — Johnny Jones, Fox News
Playing the anthem puts players in a tough spot
“For the players, it would also ease the pressure on them coming into this season. They can just be themselves and do what they want without worrying about other people’s reactions.” — Rob Parker, Deadspin
It provides a chance for athletes to make themselves heard
“Unlike many of my media brethren, I support continuing to play our national anthem before sporting events. I also continue to strongly support the right of Colin Kaepernick and others to kneel during the anthem as a personal expression of a demand for change. I like that our anthem is a palette for both patriotism and protest — a symbol of our freedom of expression. That is one big reason to keep it.” — Greg Cote, Miami Herald
“The Star-Spangled Banner" transcends politics and brings people together
Sports are … a beautiful microcosm of our society where anyone — no matter your race, religion, gender or sexual orientation — can take the field and compete as equals. It’s the anthem that brings us together for a brief moment honoring those freedoms.” — John Duffley, FanBuzz
A sporting event is the wrong venue for patriotism
“I’d be fine if we kept a day at the ballgame free of all patriotic customs and gestures. I can save it all for the July 4 parade, the annual turning around of Old Ironsides, or a bucket-list trip to Washington to see a president inaugurated.” — Kevin Paul Dupont, Boston Globe
The anthem isn’t played before any other spectator event
“Movies, plays, concerts, ceremonies and other large gatherings don’t start with semi-compulsory patriotic observances, so why sporting events? Much as I love group singing and political expression, there will remain plenty of opportunities for both without starting each contest with a controversy.” — Eric Zorn, Chicago Tribune
Overuse of the song dilutes its meaning
“Take it from someone who hears the anthem well more than 100 times a year before different sporting events. … Hearing it before each and every game can be too much of a good thing, leaving Americans immune to its meaning.” — Orrin Schwarz, Daily Herald (Illinois)
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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images