How Singing the National Anthem Became Sports Ritual & History of Right to Protest

Singing the national anthem has traditionally been used as a unifier at sporting events, sending the message that we may root for different teams, but we are all Americans who share a heritage and basic values. With protests of police brutality, and against racial injustice, that may be changing temporarily. Eventually, however, such protests lose their shock value and audiences cease to pay attention.

Americans have long complained that their national anthem is too difficult for most people to sing on key. “That is the sad reason,” my friend writes, “we are the only nation on earth whose fans don’t SING our anthem at sporting events but listen to a media figure with to-do talent perform it. And go nuts if he (or she) actually hits the high notes.”

He first suggests replacing “The Star-Spangled Banner” with “God Bless America.” But as an increasing number of Americans become outspoken secularists, a national anthem with the word “God” in the title isn’t likely to win unanimous acceptance. Then he suggests replacing it with “American the Beautiful.” I do like it better, and the sentiments it expresses are far less nationalistic.

ESPN Magazine offers a history of the use of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in sports, tracing its most dramatic and profitable use to the 1918 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox. Boston won in six games, with Babe Ruth breaking records, pitching 16 straight scoreless innings.

Essentially, the team owners discovered that the anthem could be used to stir up patriotic fervor, increase interest and attendance at the games. Equating patriotism with fandom is great marketing, a good business tactic. Not so different from using the anthem and the flag to sell cars, or to inspire citizens to go shopping on President’s Day, Memorial Day and Labor Day.

The 1919 World Series was Babe Ruth’s last post-season appearance for the Red Sox. And yet attendance was far less than expected. The national mood was sour, with 100,000 deaths in World War I at that stage and the wounded straggling home, many paralyzed for life. There had been a terrorist attack one day before the first game in Chicago, attributed to a labor dispute.

Fans were unusually quiet and seemed distracted through the first games. To stir them up, a military band was summoned to play. Red Sox third baseman Fred Thomas, fresh from Navy duties, inspired the crowd when he ran onto the field, faced the flag and snapped to attention with a military salute. Other players followed suit. ESPN Magazine:
“The crowd, already standing, showed its first real signs of life all day, joining in a spontaneous sing-along, haltingly at first, then finishing with flair. The scene made such an impression that The New York Times opened its recap of the game not with a description of the action on the field but with an account of the impromptu singing…”
Writers Luke Cyphers and Ethan Trex conclude:

“Other major league teams noticed the popular reaction to “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 1918, and over the next decade, it became the standard for World Series and holiday games. In subsequent years, through subsequent wars, it grew into the daily institution we know today…

“What, after all, does an antagonistic, difficult-to-sing 200-year-old tune about a flag have to do with playing ball?

“Quite a bit, actually. Congress didn’t officially adopt the “The Star-Spangled Banner” until 1931 — and by that time it was already a baseball tradition steeped in wartime patriotism. Thanks to a brass band, some fickle fans and a player who snapped to attention on a somber day in September, the old battle ballad was the national pastime’s anthem more than a decade before it was the nation’s.”

Citizens Have A Right Not to Participate

The U.S. Supreme Court has emphatically ruled that punishing citizens, even students, for refusing to salute the flag or participate in patriotic activities violates their freedom of speech. In 1943, in the landmark case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the high court ruled that Jehovah’s’ Witnesses who refused to salute the flag because it was against their religion could not be punished by expulsion or even threatened with expulsion.

“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation,” the court wrote, “it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.”

In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that citizens even have a right to burn the American flag in public.

The US is different from some other countries in granting a constitutional right not to participate in public expressions of patriotism.

  • Filipino citizens can be jailed or fined for refusing to sing their national anthem with gusto. India has arrested numerous citizens for refusing to stand or sing its national anthem.
  • Japanese schools can force teachers to sing the anthem, but punishments for teachers refusing to sing can’t be excessive, the Supreme Court has ruled.

 

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