(UPDATE: The NBA issued a directive today: “With NBA teams now in the process of welcoming fans back into their arenas, all teams will play the national anthem in keeping with longstanding league policy.)
It was a little jarring this week to hear Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks pro basketball team, announce that there would be no national anthem played before Dallas home games at the American Airlines Center for the indefinite future. Apparently, that’s been the practice since the pre-season for the Mavs, but since fans have only recently been allowed in the arena for games, no one really noticed the change until now.
So what caused the cancellation of a tradition that has been around since “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played during the 7th-inning stretch of the first game of the 1918 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox?
Has Cuban, who has previously expressed solidarity for players who chose to kneel during the national anthem as a protest against racism, gone one step further and declared – by his action – that the song is so offensive that it must now be banned?
Cuban is being a little circumspect on that issue. The National Basketball Association gave all the teams discretion last year, because of COVID-19, to handle their own pre-game rituals as they saw fit. With no one in the stands – at least until recently – and the warning of health experts that singing can multiply the infectious nature of the virus, a temporary cessation of this long-standing tradition may indeed be warranted.
But I hope that the ban is temporary, and that it’s not a case of political correctness taken to extremes.
“The Star-Spangled Banner,” penned in September 1814 by Francis Scott Key as he watched the British naval attack on Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor, wasn’t officially adopted by an act of Congress as the nation’s official anthem until 1931, even though President Woodrow Wilson had decreed in 1916 that it would be played at all official events. Though the Cubs and Red Sox series in 1918 may be the first association of sports with the anthem – a fact which even some historians politely dispute – Major League baseball didn’t officially mandate the playing of the anthem at all its games until World War II. The National Football League followed suit at about that same time.
Today the anthem is ubiquitous at everything from Little League baseball games to presidential inaugurations.
The criticism from some quarters is that Key’s famous song contained pro-slavery lyrics in its third verse – again, vigorously disputed by music historians – or that its association with wartime patriotism during both world wars makes it too jingoistic.
Yet, it perseveres. It’s a tradition that means something to people. In 2018, when officials at a California high school softball game announced that they would forego the singing of the national anthem, the fans broke out spontaneously with their own rendition, as the players stopped to sing along.
So why is it that most people react viscerally when told there will be no playing of a song whose extensive vocal range is almost impossible for them to sing with any skill anyway?
In my own six decades of singing the song along with everyone else at official functions and sporting events, I never really stopped to ask “why” we did it until after 9/11. Then the answer seemed obvious even before I could ask myself the question. For years afterward, I couldn’t even get through the song without choking up.
The Americans killed on 9/11 fit every demographic – young, old, white, black, Hispanic, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, men, women, gay, straight and every other conceivable characteristic by which we are so fond of dividing ourselves these days.
The common characteristic that unites us, on a far deeper level than even skin color or religion, is that we are Americans. That word is powerful. It doesn’t mean that we are some super race of people, without sin or fault. Nor does it mean that we gloss over our own history and cover up the mistakes and attitudes that, judged by today’s standards, appear egregious.
G.K. Chesterton once said, “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence; perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature. It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments exist to give them that justice, and that their authority is for that reason just.”
So when I stand up with others in the crowd, take off my hat, unite my voice with all those Americans around me, and begin with “Oh say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light…” I’m declaring my commonality with them. With you. Together, we are united in the principles on which America was founded. We will press on to see those principles turned into reality in every realm of life where we’ve thus far fallen short. But we will press on together.
And with God’s grace, we will continue to unite behind those principles. And I would be remiss if I didn’t remind all of us that the fourth stanza of the anthem points to the One we look to as the source of our national blessings:
“O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
Between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with vict’ry and peace may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto – ‘In God is our trust,’
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Photo is from Shutterstock.