The 1921 New York Yankees stand for the national anthem before a game.

A Brief History of the National Anthem and Sports

If you’ve ever wondered why the anthem is played before every professional sporting contest, this is the post for you.

The national anthem has been played before every sporting event I have watched on TV, participated in, or attended across almost all levels of athletics, from high school varsity to the pros. Since National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the anthem in August of 2016, the performance of the anthem at sporting contests has morphed into a subject of fiercely partisan debate. 

The anthem was back in the news last week when Mark Cuban, owner of the National Basketball Association’s Dallas Mavericks, stated that “In listening to the community, there were quite a few people who voiced their concerns, really their fears that the national anthem did not fully represent them, that their voices were not being heard.”

The Mavericks had not played the anthem before any home games until Cuban gave his statement in early February. The anthem’s absence was largely unnoticed, likely due in-part to the lack of in-person fans at NBA games as a result of the ongoing pandemic. After Cuban went public with his statement, the NBA office directed Cuban and the Mavericks to follow league policy and resume playing the anthem before games. The team and its outspoken owner have complied.

I am not interested in rehashing the tired debate about the anthem and its relationship to Kaepernick, kneeling, the First Amendment, supporting the troops, or Black Lives Matter.

Every time a Vice President storms out of an NFL game or a global superstar warms up in a shirt reading “I can’t breathe”, the national media, news and sports outlets alike, devote hours of coverage to the same topics for days on end.

LeBron James, then with the Miami Heat, warms up in an “I can’t breathe” shirt in the wake of the murder of Eric Garner.
LeBron James, then with the Miami Heat, warms up in an “I can’t breathe” shirt in the wake of the murder of Eric Garner. Photo credits Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY Sports.

Instead, I want to explore why we as Americans play the anthem before athletic contests, from high school volleyball games to the Super Bowl, in the first place.

University of Michigan musicology professor Mark Clague states that the first incidence of the anthem being played before a sporting event was on May 15, 1862 at a baseball field in Brooklyn, NY. With the Civil War in full-swing, having already been fought for over a year, patriotic sentiments were high. Whenever a band gathered to perform, as was the case in Brooklyn on this day in May, it was expected that national music would be performed.

The song “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key was only 48 years old in 1862. It was another 69 years away from legally becoming the United States of America’s national anthem. But when the United States entered World War One, patriotic rituals at Major League Baseball games grew further in popularity.

In 1916, the year before the United States formally declared war on Germany, President Woodrow Wilson declared that “The Star-Spangled Banner” was to be played before all official military events. 

As part of the seventh-inning stretch of Game One of the 1918 World Series, where today fans are accustomed to hearing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” (or “Sweet Caroline” in Boston), fans in attendance were treated to a rendition of the country’s not-quite-official national anthem. 

The game was hosted by the Chicago Cubs. A day before the game, a bomb exploded at Chicago’s Adams Street Federal Building and killed four people. Over 100,000 American servicemen had perished in World War One in just a year and a half of fighting. The federal government had recently announced that MLB players would now be subject to the draft. All of this created a perfect storm for the anthem to be a hit.

The still-unofficial anthem was indeed a hit in the 1918 World Series, so the owner of the Boston Red Sox arranged for a band to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” before each game for the rest of the series. After the cessation of hostilities, MLB teams continued to play the anthem before important events such as Opening Day, the Fourth of July, and the World Series.

The 1921 New York Yankees stand for the national anthem before a game.
The 1921 New York Yankees stand for the national anthem before a game. Photo credits FPG/Getty Images.

In 1930, the Veterans of Foreign Wars submitted a petition with a staggering 5 million signatures to Congress supporting Maryland Congressman J. Charles Linthicum’s proposal to make “The Star-Spangled Banner” the country’s official national anthem.

The National Parks Service writes that, even in the 1930s, the song “had its detractors”, owing largely to its immense musical range and obscure reference to the bombardment of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. 

But 5 million signatures and pressure from World War One veterans proved too much to ignore, and President Herbert Hoover signed into law the legislation that made “The Star-Spangled Banner” our anthem in 1931.

After gaining official status, the popularity of the song increased, and the anthem was often attached to newsreels in cinemas. The patriotic fervor that swept the country during World War Two only helped the anthem’s spread throughout the country, and by the end of the conflict the song was well-known across the country.

In 1945, as hostilities concluded, NFL commissioner Elmer Layden said “The playing of the national anthem should be as much a part of every game as the kickoff. We must not drop it simply because the war is over. We should never forget what it stands for.” Thus the NFL became the first sports league to mandate the national anthem before each contest. However, NFL players were not required to stand on the field during the anthem until 2009. Before this rule change, players only came out of the locker room for the anthem before the Super Bowl and in the games immediately after 9/11.

Despite being the oldest professional sports league in the United States, as well as the first league to play the anthem before games, the MLB does not have a rule requiring an anthem to be played before games nor a written policy governing player behavior. I use “an” anthem because games involving the Toronto Blue Jays typically perform the Canadian anthem, “O Canada” in addition to “The Star-Spangled Banner”. Baseball teams often play “God Bless America” as well at some point during the game, but this is not an official league requirement either. 

As mentioned earlier, the NBA and WNBA require the national anthem to be played before their contests. Again, owing to the existence of a Toronto team in the NBA, the Raptors, this includes “O Canada” if the Raptors are playing. Both the men’s and women’s leagues also require players to stand for the anthem, but violations of this policy have not been punished since Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Adbul-Rauf was fined for declining to stand for the anthem, which he said was in conflict with his Muslim faith, in 1996. Much like Kaepernick, despite leading his team in scoring at the time of his protest, Abdul-Rauf would find himself out of the league three years after his quiet demonstration. Today, players are encouraged but not required to stand for the anthem.

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf stands and prays during the national anthem
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf agreed to stand for the anthem while praying following his fine and one game suspension. Photo credits AP Photo/M. Spencer Green.

The most international of the four major pro sports leagues in the United States is the National Hockey League. The league requires an anthem to be played before each game. With seven Canadian clubs in the league, the pre-game rituals may include  “The Star-Spangled Banner”, “O Canada”, or both tunes, depending on which clubs are competing. Players are not required to be on the ice for the songs.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA, governs athletic contests for dozens of conferences and hundreds of member institutions, ranging from far-right religious schools like Liberty to incubators of peaceful protest movements like Columbia or UC Berkeley.

Each conference, and many schools, have their own policies on whether athletes must stand for the anthem or whether the anthem must be played. However, the NCAA as a governing body does not require the anthem to be played before contests in any sports. Major collegiate events like March Madness and the Rose Bowl are not obligated to play the anthem prior to the start of competition.

In summary, three of the four major professional sports leagues in the United States require the anthem before their games, with the first requirement dating back to 1945. Colleges are not similarly mandated to perform the anthem, but the patchwork of bylaws from the NCAA, conferences, and schools themselves lead to different rules at each campus across all 50 states.

Only the NBA, WNBA, and NFL further require their athletes to stand on the field/court for the anthem, but in recent years none of the three leagues have actively enforced this policy.

Personally, I have never understood the insistence that the anthem is played before every athletic event. I can understand playing the anthem before international contests like the World Cup or at medal ceremonies for events like the Olympics, as athletes at these events are explicitly representing their home countries. That is decidedly not the case for a AAA baseball game between the Albuquerque Isotopes and Richmond Flying Squirrels. If anything, performing the anthem for each sporting event cheapens the emotional weight the song carries when it is played at an inherently patriotic event such as an inauguration.

Furthermore, I have always believed the best way to honor the First Amendment and those who defended it is to express your right to free speech. One thing that the United States understands better than many countries is the unimpeded right to freedom of expression. Whereas in a country like Thailand one can be imprisoned for 43 years for criticizing the king, the First Amendment guarantees the government of the United States cannot restrict our speech, which includes singing off-key or kneeling during the anthem. 

I understand that the First Amendment protects us from government restrictions on speech, not private restrictions by corporations, so the leagues and private colleges are well within their legal rights to discipline athletes for not standing during the anthem. But this sort of mandatory patriotism has always felt contradictory to the soul of the First Amendment.

This brief history of the anthem at sporting events also does not touch on paid patriotism spending by the Department of Defense in recent years. Events like fighter jet flyovers and soldiers unfurling massive American flags are huge advertisements for the United States military and the US taxpayer has funded these jingoistic demonstrations to the tune of over $6.8 million.

If leagues are going to keep performing the anthem before every single game, is it really necessary to also blatantly advertise the military to impressionable young men and women before every kickoff, tip, puck drop, or first pitch? I think not.

As Cuban’s recent spat with the NBA shows, the anthem is not going to disappear from American sports anytime soon. I believe that any restrictions on player behavior during the anthem will fade away, either officially or through lack of enforcement. If a college athlete at a public university chooses to protest the anthem, complicated new legal questions surrounding the anthem and peaceful protest will arise, as the ability of a public university to restrict speech is limited when compared to a private institution. And despite my hang ups surrounding the anthem before domestic events, I am still very much in favor of playing the anthem before international contests.

Until the next Olympics, however, I do not see why the anthem must be played before every sporting event. After all, an NBA game is, at its most basic level, another day of work for the ten athletes on the court. If your boss ordered you to stand for the anthem everyday at 8:30 a.m. before sitting down at your desk to fill out spreadsheets or make sales calls, that would feel incredibly 1984. So if the public at large would never stand for the anthem every day before starting work, why are we making athletes do so?

Ben Testani
Ben Testani is a freelance writer and young professional. Though originally from Central New York, he is currently based out of Sacramento, California. He enjoys basketball, noise-cancelling headphones, and the National Parks Service.
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