The Star-Spangled Hammer: A Plea to Stop Being Forced to Sing the National Anthem at Every Sporting Event

I can’t be the only sports fan in the world who gets annoyed when I sit down to watch a sporting event and am unwittingly forced to wait 2-3 minutes while an unknown singer gives me his/her rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner.” There’s got to be some other poor sap at home just trying to catch a few innings of the Richmond Flying Squirrels/Savannah Sand Gnats game before going to work, who now has to endure an unnecessary vocal performance by the 18th runner up from season 37 of American Idol.

Let me make clear that I’m not anti-national anthem. I of course understand the significance of the song. The imagery of war, the strong sense of patriotism, and the honoring of our national symbol. During times of war and tragedy, the Francis Scott Key-penned tune has served as a source of hope, comfort, and unity. The song is a way to honor our nation’s history, to bring to consciousness our amazing freedoms, and a way to remember those fallen heroes who gave their lives to protect and ensure the preservation of our liberties. Given all of these great things, what could possibly be wrong with singing the national anthem before a sporting event?

Well…a few things.

First of all, sports and nationalism is an arbitrary alliance. What does the national anthem have to do with a sporting event? Why do we save this patriotic ritual only for athletic events? What about singing the national anthem at work every day? What about at church? Or town hall meetings? Or graduations? Or in the classroom? The idea of tying the national anthem to a football game is just as arbitrary as singing Christmas carols at a monster truck rally. There’s no reason for it.

I read one person’s thought that the national anthem is a battle cry, one designed to strike fear in the heart of opponents. This makes sense when Americans are playing a foreign opponent (e.g. the Olympics), but in 99.9% of American sporting events, both teams are American. Is an opposing team supposed to be intimidated by the playing of its own national anthem? Playing the national anthem before a Lakers/Celtics game is akin to a boy telling his biological brother that, “My dad can beat up your dad.”

Very few people actually enjoy singing the national anthem. (An obvious exception is a woman at my undergraduate university who forced a gymnasium full of innocent college students to listen to her sing all four verses [Yes! The national anthem has four verses!] before a basketball game.) When the national anthem is sung, you usually see five groups of people: (1) The people who are visibly annoyed that they have to stand and remove their caps; (2) People who are so bored that they are leaning on the seat in front of them to keep from passing out; (3) People corralling screaming children in an effort to not draw attention to their disrespectful brats; (4) People who just don’t give a shit and are playing with their phone, talking, slurping on a hot dog, etc; and (5) The white guys over 60 who are pissed at the people in the other four categories. These same white guys are usually very surly over the fact that people are not standing up straight, not placing their hands in the right spot over their chests, not standing with their feet together, etc. In the end, no one is happy. Rather than uniting fellow Americans, the song usually just irritates people for varying reasons.

Finally, by having the national anthem sung at more than a million sporting events in the U.S. every year, we are inevitably subjected to the many performers who manage to screw up the lyrics, destroy the song with a bizarre interpretation, or just flat out disrespect it.

Some will disagree with my sentiments here and simply say, “What’s the big deal? It only takes a couple minutes. Besides, it’s nice that we can take a moment and collectively honor our country, its history, and our service members.” Here’s my response: People go to sporting events to watch a game. They don’t go to honor their country. If people want to honor their country, there are a million ways to do that (e.g. join the military, donate time and money to service-related organizations, hang a flag, attend patriotic events and parades, put a sticker or magnet on your car, wear patriotic clothing, become involved in civic activities, run for office, celebrate national holidays, write to newspapers about patriotic issues, send a care package to someone you know in the military, hold patriotic events at your home such as 4th of July BBQs, root for American teams in international competitions, help out a fellow citizen, take time to learn about the nation’s history, visit a local museum, travel to different parts of the country such as Fort McHenry in Baltimore where the “Star Spangled Banner” was originally written, etc.). Unfortunately, most of these activities require at least minimal effort from people. They would rather show up to a ballgame, be told when to stand, and then wait for their cue to think about their country. Then they feel like they’ve fulfilled their civic duty. It’s pathetic.

By the way, these sentiments also extend to the singing of “God Bless America” at every 7th inning stretch. Just like the national anthem, this was a temporary thing that just never went away. Prior to 9/11, no one sang “God Bless America” during the 7th inning stretch. But as a symbol of unity, we started. And then we never stopped. Twelve years later we’re still engaging in this irrational ritual. A few years from now people will think that’s how it’s always been, and any suggestion of discontinuing the tradition will be met with fierce opposition by America-loving patriots.

I believe there’s a time and place for the national anthem. If an athletic organization wants to lead the national anthem at a game that falls on the 4th of July, or Veterans Day, or the anniversary of D-Day, I say go right ahead. If a sports team wants to select a day to honor active duty service members or wounded warriors, that’s great. Make the national anthem part of the festivities. That makes sense. But singing the national anthem at every single sporting event is simply unnecessary. If you watch frequent sporting events, it starts to get annoying. And once you’ve started to annoy people, any chance of appealing to national pride is lost. When the national anthem is saved for special events, it remains special. But singing it at every sporting event – from professional sports all the way down to middle school scrimmages – makes the song virtually meaningless.

So the next time I’m at home gearing up for the big game, and Ruben Studdard breaks into the first few notes of the national anthem, I’ll push mute and mosey to the fridge to grab a beer. But I’ll still love America.

– Nathan

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11 Responses to “The Star-Spangled Hammer: A Plea to Stop Being Forced to Sing the National Anthem at Every Sporting Event”

  1. Thanks for linking to my blog post. I kind of revisited this topic recently http://wp.me/p2bUoH-1Cu

  2. Thanks Samuel! I enjoyed your blog. I actually just made an edit, moving your link (and about half the text in my original post) to the comments section. I was right around 2,000 words and wanted to scale back.

  3. Like many of my rants on this blog, this issue was brought to my attention by a Facebook post I came across in my newsfeed. Someone had created a meme suggesting that American freedom was being threatened by liberals who want to do away with singing the national anthem before sporting events. This got me wondering. Is there such a left-wing agenda? Are left-leaning individuals attempting to obliterate the national anthem? Have I missed this sociopolitical movement? To answer these questions, I did several google searches to see what I could find. After a dozen or so searches, I found two hits featuring people who questioned the merit of singing the national anthem at sporting events.

    The first hit was a two-year old blog piece written by a seemingly unknown sports blogger named Samuel Lam, a sports fan from the Bay Area. Lam wrote a very respectful piece simply asking the question, “Is it necessary to sing the national anthem before every sporting event?” Not exactly the ultra-liberal vitriol I was expecting. The second and last Google hit I came across was a 45-second clip that aired on ESPN last year. One of the four ESPN panelists on the segment had a brief – but fairly fiery – diatribe stating that the national anthem is “a war anthem” and should not be associated with sporting events. That was it. I could find no other media mentions suggesting that we do away with the national anthem.
    This issue turned out to be another invented issue manufactured by the far-right (and even less substantiated than the mythic and much-hyped war on Christmas). It’s another issue the right can use to drum up anger and fear within the herd. The sad part is that the people on the far right buy this stuff hook, line, and sinker. When I was engaging in a friendly dialogue regarding the issue, a right-leaning gentleman told me that the liberal plan to get rid of the national anthem is another attempt by Democrats to “divide and conquer” the country. Well, he’s half right. This certainly is a “divide and conquer” strategy, but it’s being manufactured by the right, not the left.

    When I suggested in the comments section of the Facebook meme that maybe it’s not necessary to sing the national anthem at EVERY sporting event, I received the following response: “Why do you hate America?” Oh boy.

    It would be nice to live in an America where we don’t have to prove our love of country with meaningless words and symbols. If American politicians don’t wear flags on the lapels of their suits, people publicly wonder if they truly love America. This all-or-none thinking applies to those of us not in office as well. Kids who don’t say the Pledge of Allegiance are unfairly ridiculed, and in adulthood, if we so much as question the legitimacy of singing the national anthem at a ballgame, we’re accused of hating America.

    I understand that singing the national anthem is a time-honored tradition, and sometimes people like their traditions, but doing something just because that’s how it’s been done in the past strikes me as hollow, and rather mindless. Do we really need to hold onto every tradition that was force fed to us during childhood? While some traditions no doubt have merit, surely there are some that are unnecessary.

  4. Mathew Whiteaker Says:

    Nathan,

    I enjoy the singing of the national anthem at sporting events, although I will concede its inclusion is a bit arbitrary. I probably only hear it a few times a month, as that is about how often I go to games or watch live games from the very beginning. Although arbitrary I think that it is appropriate at sporting events, but not necessarily for the chest thumping aspects of being a patriot. For me, and I assume many others, I have a sense of inclusion related to sports with “my team” and “my fans.” Rationally I should get little real benefit if my team wins a close match, or if the US athlete proves triumphant at an event at the Olympics. But I do, I feel proud, and momentary elated with my sharing of their experience. I feel connected to the event in way as a spectator perhaps I don’t deserve. But the desire is clearly powerful for many people to follow their teams, their pseudo tribes, or their country’s team often leading to elation, despair, or even at times violence. So it is with that in mind I think the national anthem serves a purpose to connect fans to the a commonality, a sense of belonging to their country, to get them in the right mindset to cheer for their adopted tribe with irrational zeal. The pageantry of signing a war based anthem also could serve a purpose to the players, perhaps more so in non-professional settings, to instill an artificial national importance to represent their country.

    You mention how painful it is many performers screw up the lyrics, imagine how much worse it might be if they had not been forced to hear it so many times before they got their turn.

    I enjoyed your perspective, and agree traditions should be examined to see if they maintain any value besides serving tradition. This one does not bother me, and as it relates to sport it may add some value.

  5. Sports Fan Says:

    Tradition in the world of sports is a beautiful thing–or at least it can be. Of traditions to eliminate, the anthem doesn’t register. How about the first pitch–screwed up far more often than the anthem? Or for that matter, the coin toss at midfield during a football game (rather than the locker room or mindlessly on the sidelines before the game). What about the handshakes/high fives in hockey and soccer before and after matches and series? Or the gift and jersey exchange at the World Cup–so strange to watch–but there is a history and tradition there. There are literally dozens of events that extend pre-game and halftime (mascots like a Seminole riding the horse and sticking a flaming spear at midfield, the marching band making halftime longer, the ultimate frisbee game between halves). It’s interesting that the only thing chosen to rant about here is our national anthem. So why do we keep these traditions? Because many of us–more than is given credit to above–connect with them (well maybe not the halftime Ultimate Frisbee game).
    By the way, the premise was way off the mark. The Anthem originated during games (not before games) during times of war. Back then, it was common to have bands in the stands for baseball games. During a World Series game in 1918 (Cubs v RedSox), the band spontaneously began to play the “Star Spangled Banner” and players from both teams stopped play, removed their caps, and listened. The crowd followed suit. When the series went back to Boston, the owner hired a band to play before the game. Keep in mind, it wasn’t even our anthem yet (1931).
    Fast forward to World War II and it again became a sign of patriotism, and advances in public address systems allowed songs to be played without a band. By the time the war ended, the pregame singing of our anthem had become a baseball ritual, and spread to other sports.
    I have a unique perspective–having played actual sports and having performed the anthem prior to games. The perspective? It’s not about you. It’s about a moment of unity before the game begins. Sports are divisive by nature–my team is better than your team. Your from one city, I’m from another so you suck. But before that begins, we can be on the same side. Even for just that moment.
    By the way, if it truly becomes an issue for you that limits your enjoyment of sports, there is a beautiful thing called “start time.” It is the actual beginning of the event minus the festivities. Otherwise, I’m sorry that the 1:56 of time that it takes to sing the anthem keeps you from enjoying the next +2 hours of sports you were otherwise going to enjoy–but you make a good point. There’s never a bad time for a beer run!

  6. Mathew – Thank you for the response. You offered a perspective to the conversation that I have not yet considered. That is, the national anthem serves as a way to make fans feel more connected to the team, the other fans, and the experience as a whole.

    That’s a compelling reason to enjoy the national anthem, and given your perspective, I think I understand the appeal it holds for you.

    That being said, I would make the case that a lot of different pregame ceremonies could potentially get fans fired up or excited or make them feel connected to the event at hand. Which ones do we included and exclude? The case I’m making is that I think such pregame festivities should be relevant to the game being played. Otherwise, things get tricky.

    For example, singing “God Bless America” was the next song that came into the baseball tradition. The national anthem brought nationalism into sports. “God Bless America” brought religion into sports. I’m doing all I can to not invoke the slippery slope argument, but you understand the point I’m making.

    When I go to sporting events, I simply want to see my team beat up on the opposing team. The jingoism can be checked at the door.

    Thanks for commenting.

  7. Sportsfan – Thank you for commenting. You asked why I targeted the national anthem and not other sporting traditions. Here’s why:

    The coin toss – It has a direct affect on the outcome of the game, making it relevant.

    Throwing out the first pitch – Yes, it has no bearing on the game. However, it’s related to baseball, and no one is told to act a certain way during the first-pitch ceremony. Plus, when someone screws up the first pitch, people find it amusing. No one finds it amusing when someone botches the national anthem.

    Handshakes and high fives encourages good sportsmanship, which I believe is very relevant to the game. And as is the case with the coin toss and throwing out the first pitch, you aren’t required to stop what you’re doing and be respectful during the high fives and handshakes.

    The mascots riding horses, the marching bands, and the ultimate frisbee games at halftime are designed to be entertainment. People can choose to watch or not. The national anthem is not designed to be entertainment.

    The national anthem has no relevancy to sports, has no outcome on the game, and is not designed to entertain. That is why I focused on it, rather than the other things you mentioned.

    You may state that people aren’t required to participate in the national anthem, but you (like me) have probably seen people harassed and ridiculed for not standing during the national anthem.

    As far as avoiding the national anthem. It’s easy to make a beer run at home. Not so easy when you’re attending the event, unless you plan on showing up late.

    Thanks again for commenting.

  8. I really agree with you here. I find it interesting that this has become one of the primary ways to ‘honor’ America. I kind of liken this to Plato’s maintaining of the ‘noble lie’. I understand that what is supposed to be happening is some sort of unifying ritual, but it seems to me to be lacking something…a true sense of patriotism, perhaps. Of course in my church work and life, I have experienced people who stand through hymns and the doxology without any true heart behind the singing. Perhaps the same thing is going on here…only on a secular level. But somehow, I don’t see this practice ending anytime soon.

  9. Matt Wilkens Says:

    I feel the same, but maybe it is because most stadiums you go to are paid for by our tax dollars. We the people are paying to erect these monuments so maybe it is a way of acknowledging the underlying socialism that exists in this country. Or maybe no one has the guts to just stop doing it, to just say no!

  10. I know I’m revisiting an old post but had to post a comment because this is the first time I saw this….

    What if sporting events created their own version of the national anthem kind of like a college fight song but did that instead of the anthem before every game? I feel like that would have more meaning behind it and could create and big tradition as well. I know I am a dallas stars fan and love to sing the national anthem before every game due only to the fact that every time it says STARS in it the crowd roars the word stars really loud. Now if we made our own Dallas Stars anthem and would sing that really loud instead I would proable like that a lot better then just singing the anthem and yelling the words Stars every time it says it.

  11. Some observations:
    – it is quite rare to have a national anthem sung for sports games that are not international or even not concerning national teams. Not unique, just quite rare.
    – the same rarity applies to before-game anthems: in most international competitions, the anthems are brought on during the medal or cup handing ceremonies. Soccer is the other exception: if anthems are used, it’s before the game.
    – most criticism concerns the way it is sung and who doesn’t warble or mime along or doesn’t stand up; not the use of the anthem itself.
    – sports are full of invented traditions, which doesn’t mean they’re without value. Just that they’re not as universal or as old as is often thought. The high-five among team players is such an example.

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