The National Anthem In Sports: History, Policy, and Protests
Updated: Apr 14
In September of 1918, the United States had been involved in World War I for 17 months and had lost over 100,000 citizens in battle. The economy and workforce were strained by the war and sports were not immune. That summer, the government began drafting Major League Baseball players into the army and ordered the MLB to end their regular season before Labor Day. As a result, the 1918 World Series was the first and only World Series to be played entirely in September.
On September 4, just one day before the World Series was slated to begin and a few miles from where it was to take place, a bomb had exploded inside the Chicago Federal Building, killing four and injuring 30. All in all, it was not setting the stage for a particularly joyous World Series opener.
As to be expected, the crowd—those who still showed up, that is—was silent for most of the Cubs 1-0 loss at the hands of Boston pitcher, Babe Ruth, with one notable exception. At the time, it was common practice for a military band to perform at sporting events. During the seventh inning stretch of Game 1 of the 1918 World Series, this military band decided to play “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which wasn’t officially adopted as the national anthem until 1931.
Upon hearing the opening notes of the song, Fred Thomas, third-baseman for the Red Sox who was on furlough from the Navy, immediately faced the flag and stood at attention. Thomas’s teammates followed suit by placing their hands over the hearts, and the crowd, already standing, joined in by singing, tentatively at first but enthusiastically by the end. Noticing the crowds' particular enjoyment of hearing the song, the Cubs decided to have the band play “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the next two games, to similarly enthusiastic crowds. Once the series shifted to Boston, the Red Sox one-upped their series rival by playing the song at the start of the game, thus beginning one of the longest standing traditions in sports.
For those of us born after the 1918 World Series, the playing of the national anthem before a sporting event was probably never really questioned. It was standard practice for all levels of sport, from parks and recreation soccer leagues for five-year olds who can’t even lace up their own cleats, all the way to the Super Bowl, the game doesn’t begin until the anthem ends. For almost 100 years, the anthem would be played before almost every sporting event and very few people ever questioned it. However, in September of 2016, a San Francisco 49ers quarterback would ignite a nationwide debate that has raged on for nearly five years.
Colin Kaepernick was far from the first person in sports to make a political statement during the national anthem. One of the most iconic Olympic moments of all-time came after Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos won gold and bronze, respectively, in the 200-meter dash at the 1968 Olympic Games. Amid a great divide in the country following the Civil Rights Movement, Smith and Carlos each held a black-gloved fist above their head for the duration of the song, protesting racial inequalities in America.
In 1996, Denver Nuggets guard, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, refused to stand for the anthem because he felt the flag and the anthem conflicted with his Muslim faith. After being asked by a reporter and doubling down on his decision, Abdul-Rauf was suspended and fined by former NBA commissioner David Stern. While the players union and the league compromised by allowing Abdul-Rauf to stand with his head bowed in prayer during the anthem, the hard feelings never seemed to go away as Abdul-Rauf, who led the team in scoring that year, was quickly traded to the Sacramento Kings. After his contract expired in 1998, the former third overall draft pick who averaged almost 20 points per game just two seasons earlier was out of the league for good at 29.
What differentiates Kaepernick, and why he is commonly referred to as the leader of anthem demonstrations, is that his particular way of protesting stuck. Fighting the same fight as Tommie Smith and John Carlos in 1968, Kaepernick began his protest before a preseason game in 2016, where instead of taking a knee, he sat on the bench during the anthem. After the media took notice, Nate Boyer, a former NFL player and military member, spoke with Kaepernick and suggested that taking a knee instead of sitting during the anthem might appear more respectful to military members. After accepting Boyer’s suggestion and kneeling for the first time, Kaepernick was asked for a response to those who view his actions as un-American. Kaepernick replied, “I don’t see what’s un-American about fighting for liberty and justice for everybody.”
Kaepernick may have abruptly lost his job after he took a knee, but his impact carried on. While a small number of NFL players followed Kaepernick’s example in 2016, it was roughly a year later when the first mass kneeling event took place. In late September of 2017, former president Donald Trump suggested that NFL owners should release any player that decided to kneel during the anthem, stating they should “get that son of a b---- off the field right now.” What followed was completely unprecedented in America’s major four sport leagues, as almost every NFL player and coach either kneeled, raised a fist, or linked arms during the national anthem that following Sunday. Former Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy, who knelt during the anthem, addressed Trump directly by stating “[u]s Americans are together. Stop trying to divide us.”
Kneeling during the anthem in the NFL remained on a lesser-scale for the following years, but there were very few, if any, athletes in the MLB, NHL, or NBA who decided to make a statement during the anthem. In 2017, Bruce Maxwell, former catcher for the Oakland A’s, took a knee and became the first baseball player to do so. While Maxwell was supported by his teammates and fellow players around the league, no one else followed suit.
While there had been numerous protests within the WNBA, most notably the LA Sparks entire team staying in the locker room during the anthem before Game 2 of The Finals in 2017 , no NBA player or team had chosen to do the same. With the NBA season starting roughly a month after Donald Trump’s comments, the NBA sent a notice to their teams reminding them of the league’s national anthem policy which required players and coaches to stand for its duration. When asked what would happen if someone decided to take a knee, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver simply said that such a situation would be dealt with if it arises. It took almost three years, but such a situation arose in grand fashion.
When the NBA and its players associations agreed to restart their COVID-interrupted season in the Orlando Bubble, the players wanted to ensure that their voices would still be heard. Following the death of George Floyd and the hundreds of world-wide protests that followed, it seemed inevitable that the NBA would have to face their policy head on. The first game of the restart, between the Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans, began what would be common practice throughout the duration of the bubble: all players, coaches, and officials took a knee and linked arms with one another while wearing shirts that read in all capital letters “BLACK LIVES MATTER” during the anthem. As expected, Silver did not enforce the policy given the unique circumstances and instead stated he respected the teams’ “unified act of peaceful protest for social justice.”
Similar demonstrations took place in professional leagues throughout the world, and has even found its way into collegiate sports as well. Notably, prior to the start of the 2020 college football season, Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren issued a statement allowing all players within the conference to kneel during the anthem if they choose to. However, not all collegiate executives have been as flexible.
The Bluefield College men’s basketball program, a Virginia school who competes within the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), was recently forced to forfeit a game after school president, David Olive, suspended a number of players on the team for kneeling during the anthem. After discovering that a number of players on the team had taken a knee for three consecutive games, Olive notified both the coach and the athletic director that kneeling would not be tolerated. When the players ignored Olive’s demand in a following game, Olive suspended all players involved. In a statement, Olive contended that while he supported his players fighting for social justice, he did not condone taking action during the anthem and even suggested that the message has been diluted because of the debate over whether it is disrespectful to veterans and the flag. Olive also mentioned that he does not believe school donors would view the act of kneeling in a positive way.
The debate rages on like never before over whether the national anthem should continue being played before sporting events. Nancy Armour, an author for USA Today, thinks it’s time we move on from the tradition. Citing fans lack of attention during the anthem, demonstrated by texting, chatting, or even “vaping,” Armour believes the anthem has been tuned out by most of the American public and has turned into a kind of “patriotic litmus test” that does nothing but divide us further. Another perhaps more prominent sports figure who seems to agree with Armour is the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban.
Before the 2020-21 NBA season started, Cuban spoke with Commissioner Silver about skipping the anthem entirely during the Mavericks home games. As there are no fans in the arena to begin the season and it did not seem as if any players would miss it, Silver had no objections at first. Cuban said that the organization “loudly hear[s] the voices of those who feel that the Anthem doesn’t represent them. We feel their voices need to be respected and heard, because they have not been." It took more than a month but finally a member of the media noticed the lack of the anthem and questioned Cuban, who explained his reasons and was briefly supported by the league. After a predictable blowback followed, the NBA quickly released a statement that again required all arenas to play the national anthem before games, thwarting Cuban’s attempt and re-affirming the longevity of the anthem in professional sports.
The national anthem has been a staple at sporting events for over a century now, and there have been a number of memorable performances. From Whitney Houston’s iconic rendition before Super Bowl XXV that topped the charts, to Fergie’s meme-able attempt at the 2018 NBA All-Star Game, we’ve seen it all. And for the time being at least, it appears here to stay.
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