Contextualizing the National Anthem Conversation

The most unexpected headline this week was the news that the Dallas Mavericks hadn’t been playing the national anthem before their home games. Of course, as soon as this made the news, things changed course and the anthem is back. Apparently, the NBA had softened the rule at the start of this season, but has now doubled back and clarified the expectation that all teams will play it before games. Some assorted thoughts on this:

While the US isn’t the ONLY country that plays the anthem before all professional and collegiate (and many high school) games, we’re in a pretty small minority. How did we get here? The tradition–as an occasional performance–dates back to the Civil War, but the current norm is decidedly more recent. I’ll defer to my UT colleague Michael Butterworth, who summarizes nicely in a pair of tweets:

So there’s that. I asked my small corner of Twitter if there were any examples of US teams similarly avoiding the anthem, as the Mavericks recently did. I didn’t get much, but historian Zach Bigalke pointed out that the Philadelphia Flyers abandoned the anthem amidst tensions during the Vietnam War, when many fans would leave their seats in a bit of protest. They replaced the song with God Bless America, won a Stanley Cup, and birthed a tradition. These days, it looks like the Flyers do play the anthem.

But for the most part, it appears to be standard fare, with a 70+ year history. The timing of the anthem hasn’t always been consistent: many NFL observers pointed out that, for many years, the anthem was played before the athletes took the field. Obviously, this changed before Colin Kaepernick’s now famous demonstration. Also on Twitter, historian Andrew McGregor noted that many Big 10 football teams would also play the song before players took the field, sometimes to the chagrin of visiting opponents.

So why might Mavericks owner Mark Cuban have signed off on this? Say what you will about Cuban, but he’s no dummy when it comes to business. My take was that it was somewhat calculated: fans offended by the absence of the song have likely already tuned out of the NBA and its increasingly visible social justice efforts. Thus, the Mavs decision might be taken as show of solidarity with their athletes and/or an alignment with fans who support the league’s progressive platforms.

And what does it all mean? Big picture…honestly, not a whole lot. But it’s another reminder that sports and politics are inextricably connected, as they have always been.


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