"" Writer's Wanderings: Sports And The National Anthem

Monday, October 02, 2017

Sports And The National Anthem

It's football season and instead of arguments over who will win the season and duke it out at the next Super Bowl, the argument is over standing or kneeling for the National Anthem. As always my curious mind takes over and I begin to wonder, why do we even play the Anthem at sports events? I know I love to hear it played by the OSU marching band at the beginning of the Buckeyes games especially because the horseshoe stadium full of 100,000+ usually sings with the band. It is a moment of pride in my country--right or wrong in some instances but free in so many ways that others around the world are not.

Francis Scott Key penned the words. As the story goes he was inspired by the flag that flew strong in the midst of the battle at Fort McHenry in Maryland as the British bombed it in the war of 1812. What some might find amusing is that the words were set to an English drinking song, "To Anacreon In Heaven" written by John Stafford Smith. But where did it start playing at sports games?

The Star Spangled Banner, written in 1814, did not even become the official national anthem until 1931 but before that time it was played for many events. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson declared it should be played at all official events but even before that it was played as early as 1862 during the Civil War at the opening day baseball game at Union Base Ball and Cricket Grounds in Brooklyn, NY.

In the 1890s the Star Spangled Banner was played at several ball games but not until 1918 did it really make a big impression in the sports world. It was opening day for baseball in Chicago, Boston Red Sox vs. Cubs. We were 17 months into a war to end all wars and 100,000 had already died fighting. Fred Thomas, the Red Sox third baseman who was on furlough from the Navy, saluted. Other players displayed their feelings with hands over hearts. The crowd that was standing began to sing. It was reported in the New York Times that the end of the song was met with "thunderous applause and rent the air with a cheer that marked the highest point of the day's enthusiasm." That's saying a lot when the game included such players as Babe Ruth.

The playing of the SSB did not happen at every ballgame simply because it required hiring a band that was expensive back then. Sound systems came into being around World War II and changed that. Soon the SSB was heard at many sporting events as well as the theater and the movies.

During the Vietnam War, the NFL commissioner, Pete Rozelle, enforced a policy that all players were to stand at attention during the playing of what was now the national anthem with their helmets tucked under their arms. They were not to talk, chew gum or move their feet. Apparently while the government cannot restrict first amendment rights, owners of sports teams can require certain behavior from their players in their contracts.

We have been to many countries where their national anthem has been played at events we have attended. As a matter of respect, we have stood with the citizens of that country as they honor their flag. It didn't meant that we agreed with their politics. It was all a matter of respect.

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