By Andrew McGregor
The Dallas Mavericks chose not to play the national anthem before their first thirteen homes games. This decision flew under the radar until the team welcomed fans back to the American Airlines Center on Monday. No one missed the anthem, until it suddenly became controversial yesterday.
The immediate question many fans and media members had was simple: Why do teams play the national anthem anyways?
The NBA answered part of that question Wednesday, reminding the Mavericks that league policy stipulates that they must play the anthem prior to each contest. Mark Cuban quickly opted to comply with the longstanding practice, but many continued to wonder both why he discontinued it and what motivated sports leagues to require teams to play the song in the first place.
According to University of Michigan musicology professor Mark Clague, the tradition of playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at sporting events dates to the 1860s. Although the song was not declared the United States official national anthem until 1931, the practice became more common during the 1918 World Series as it is said to have inspired the players and crowd who attended the game amidst the Great War. Major League Baseball did not begin requiring the anthem be played prior to the first pitch of its games until the 1942 season. The NFL followed suit in 1945.
When the NFL made its decision, Commissioner Elmer Layden explained that, “The National Anthem should be as much a part of every game as the kick-off. We must not drop it simply because the war is over. We should never forget what it stands for.” Layden saw the anthem as a central part of American patriotism and a reminder of the sacrifice that U.S. soldiers made to preserve our democracy.
The anthem’s association with wartime patriotism and remembrance continued amidst the Cold War. The international conflict brought nationalism to the fore as the United States’ athletic rivalry with Soviet Union intensified. The anthem served to highlight gold medal performances on the podium, a tradition begun at the 1932 Olympic Games.
The Cold War consensus fused by loyalty oaths and anti-communism in the 1950s and 1960s meant few questioned the use of use of sports for political purposes. The amateur system required that many Olympians join the military to continue their post-collegiate athletic careers, solidifying the link between sport and militarism. Combined, sports success and military service embodied the competitive spirit central to Cold War patriotism. State sponsored athletic competitions a part of international goodwill missions positioned amateur collegians and military personnel as key representatives of American democracy.
Sport as both politics and patriotism necessitated that the national anthem become a part of American sporting culture. It also required Black athletes perform an athletic patriotism that reflected the superiority of the American Way of Life. The lived reality of Africans Americans, however, vastly differed from the image projected by the United States abroad, providing a stark reminder of the two-ness of their American citizenship.
By 1968, America’s Black athletes had become fed up. Recognizing the power of their voices, they began discussing ways to protest racial inequality in American life as well as white supremacy around the world. The Olympic Project for Human Rights formed out of this desire and resulted in the demonstration by Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the national anthem while they stood on the podium following 200m in Mexico City.
Smith and Carlos’ protest incited an intense reaction by the International Olympics Committee (IOC), headed by American Avery Brundage, as well as the American public. They were immediately expelled from the U.S. Olympic team as well as the Olympic Village, and other athletes warned not to make their own demonstrations. The media also took aim. A young Brent Musburger described them as ungrateful and “Black skinned stormtroopers,” which in the pre-Star Wars era referred to a specialized division of NAZI troop. The dig questioned their loyalty, their Americanness, and positioned them as a hated enemy.
While Brundage abhorred the mixing of sport and politics at the Olympics, attempts to tone down their embrace of nationalism failed just prior to the 1968 Games. As Ryan Murtha has explains, a proposal to eliminate the playing of national anthems from the Olympics fell three votes short approval. Its sponsor, Prince George William of Hanover, hoped to cleanse the international sporting event of its nationalistic Cold War rivalries that overshadowed the “spirit of the games” and transformed the event into a scorecard for international relations.
Murtha notes that although the measure did not gain approval it still received a majority of votes from IOC members (passage required a two-thirds majority). The vote served as an admission that sports had in fact become political and the playing of national anthems aided these ends. Sadly, it was too late to divorce the two.
For many Americans the national anthem is the ultimate symbol of patriotism, second to only the flag, and represents their love for our country. A mainstay at American sporting events since the early Cold War, patriotic displays increased following September 11, 2001. Since then, few have questioned the practice and instead sought to judge athletes who do not conform to the cultural expectations of primarily white professional sports fans.
How one behaves during the playing of the national anthem requires strict decorum, such as standing at attention, removing one’s hat, and placing your hand over your heart. Love of country demands it. Protesting the anthem, or not playing at it all, is an affront to our democracy. It is tantamount to being an ungrateful citizen in the Land of the Free, or, worse, not supporting our military personnel who defend American freedom. Ironic as these views are, conservative reactions to player protests and changes in patriotic displays highlight the authoritarian elements of loyalty that undermine the virtue of free speech espoused in American democracy.
In recent years, the tradition has seemingly become more for the fans than the players. As we have seen the last few days with the Dallas Mavericks, media members, fans, and leagues demand that anthem be played even as an increasing number of athletes protest during it. Their demonstrations, often kneeling as Colin Kaepernick did in 2016 but occasionally the raising of a fist mimicking the iconic moment by Smith and Carlos from 1968, are meant to call out systemic racial injustice and police brutality in America. To fans, however, these actions often represent the intermingling of sports and politics in overt ways as if the presence of the anthem alone didn’t already signal it.
The playing of the national anthem before sporting events has always been political, whether protested or not. Solidified in American sporting culture during the early Cold War era, the playing of the anthem reflects a particular style of patriotism and loyalty deemed necessary to beat our enemies, whether on the battlefield, the gridiron, or the court. The politics of patriotism limits one’s expression and seeks to downplay questions about America’s strength, the fairness of its democracy, or the equity of its capitalist economy. Concerns about displays of proper patriotism, or the right way to protest, operate as form of respectability politics that targets predominately non-white professional athletes. Indeed, sports leagues have added their own policies that limit athlete expression and require certain behaviors.
Since Kaepernick’s protest in 2016, the national anthem at sporting events has remained a controversial issue. Demonstrations during the national anthem have steadily grown as athletes have used the time devoted to celebrating American patriotism as an opportunity to demonstrate the need to continue to improve society. The NBA embraced these causes, especially following the death of George Floyd this past summer, and stopped enforcing its policy that all players must stand for the anthem. The league, however, insists that each team must play the national song before their games, choosing to keep sports and politics tethered to one another.
The Mavericks’ decision not to play the anthem was not an attempt disentangle sport and politics. Instead, team owner Mark Cuban described it as an “experiment” to see how long until people noticed, particularly without fans in the arena. In some ways, the team was trying to infuse more politics into sport. Taking the issue head on, Cuban showed that few detected the absence.
While the experiment stirred controversy, it also asked people to reflect on the necessity of playing the anthem at sporting events. In a statement released by the team, Cuban acknowledged the need for “courageous conversations” and hoped that “people will take the same passion they have for this issue and apply the same amount of energy to listen to those who feel differently from them.” Ultimately, he hoped these conversations would help Americans “find what unites us.”
To be sure, Cuban’s idea of using controversy to spark unity initially seems odd. Yet, it rests on exposing the absurdity of American’s newfound obsession over the national anthem and inspiring fans to interrogate the quotidian traditions of American life. As Kevin Sherrington of the Dallas Morning News explains, the Mavericks played “God Bless America” instead of “The Star-Spangled Banner” for over 16 years. Only in the hyper-partisan culture wars of the Trump era has the national anthem become polarized, removing any possibility of its political innocence.
Unfortunately, the critical thinking Cuban sought to inspire did not take place. Reminiscent of Loyalty Oaths passed by a number of states during the late-1940s and early-1950s, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick reacted by trying to legislate patriotism. Under his recently introduced “the Star-Spangled Banner Protection Act,” Patrick wants to “ensure that the national anthem is played at all events which receive public funding,” which would include the American Airlines Center. Like other conservatives, Patrick ignores the authoritarian nature of his proposed law and undermines the democratic values, including free speech and expression, that are touted as making American great. He refused to ask why the national anthem is an essential component of basketball games.
The irony extends further given that Patrick has criticized Kaepernick’s protests and subsequent Nike ads. He on one hand wants to remove politics from sports yet on the other is using his political power to try to dictate how a professional sports team operates. Under his form of patriotism, dissent is unacceptable and unwavering loyalty required.
Patrick and other conservatives who object to protests see the national anthem as an apolitical celebration of America, harkening back to the Cold War era consensus. Similarly, they view criticism of the United States and challenges to the status quo not as patriotic attempts to improve the country but rather as ungrateful attacks that weaken the country by further splintering it along ideological or racial lines. For them, the national anthem is an elixir that foments unity and evaporates division. It is meant to proudly reverberate through arenas and drown out the voices that make so many white Americans uncomfortable when they ask that the United States live up to its lofty goals and recognize their human dignity.
This desire is what animated Cuban’s action. Amidst the controversy, the team explained: “we also loudly hear the voices of those who feel that the anthem does not represent them. We feel that their voices need to be respected and heard, because they have not been.” Cuban and the Mavericks are committed to listening and talking about difficult issues.
Conversations begun this week can help expose the long political history of the national anthem and its tie to sports and reveal that there is more than one way to love our country and they need not all be celebratory. The controversy surrounding the national anthem reminds us that there is no singular way to perform patriotism. As we celebrate Black History Month it is important to remember and honor the selfless acts of protest and civil disobedience that improved our society; to listen to these leaders and heed their call to action. Black athletes have often been central to this struggle and continue to the lead the way fighting against injustice in America. Mark Cuban and the Dallas Mavericks have sought to join this conversation and re-consider how and where our patriotic passion can be best put to use for the good of our country. Let’s hope they continue in this spirit, regardless of what politicians and league executives say.
Andrew McGregor, PhD is a Professor of History at Dallas College and the founder and co-editor of this blog.