Football season is in full-swing, and so is the controversy surrounding hundreds of NFL players’ unpatriotic actions.
Now that the NFL players’ favorite form of political expression appears to be disrespecting our country and our flag, it is worth examining how the practice of honoring our flag came to be part of major sporting events in the first place.
The tradition of singing our national anthem (and showing respect for our nation’s flag) at sporting events is deeply rooted in American history - and, in fact, the tradition predates both the NFL and even the official recognition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as our national anthem.
According to John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s historian, May 15, 1862, in Brooklyn was the first recorded incident when the song was played at a baseball game. The United States was fighting the Civil War, and a band at the game played “The Star-Spangled Banner” for the audience.
More than 30 years later, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was part of Opening Day in Philadelphia in 1897. The New York Times described it this way: “The players paraded across the field, company front, and then raised the new flag, while the band played ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ “
But the real turning point occurred in 1918, when the song was played for the first time during a World Series game - Game 1 between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs. The game was played before an audience of 19,274 at Comiskey Park (the Cubs’ borrowed home for World Series games). During the 7th inning stretch, as fans were already standing, the military band began to play “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and the fans in the stands removed their hats and began to sing.
The New York Times wrote at the time that it was “far different from any incident that has ever occurred in the history of baseball.” The Times noted: “It was at the very end that the onlookers exploded into thunderous applause and rent the air with a cheer that marked the highest point of the day’s enthusiasm.” That’s worth restating. It was Game 1 of the World Series and the most enthusiastic moment of the entire game was the national anthem.
Fans were preoccupied with the war raging in Europe, and their minds were, undoubtedly, focused on the rising death toll. The Chicago Daily Tribune that morning, in fact, had listed the casualties of the war, with a special section “Chicagoans in the Lists,” naming each of the servicemen who had paid the ultimate sacrifice.
The enthusiastic response from the audience did not go unnoticed, and the Red Sox and Cubs decided to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” for each game of that series.
In 1942, as the nation was again at war, the national anthem became a part of every baseball game, and has been a part of every game since that year.
It is hardly a coincidence that the national anthem was first played at a baseball game during the Civil War, that the song captured the sporting world’s attention during the first World War, or that it went on to become a permanent fixture at sporting events because of its role at baseball games during the second World War.
Three wars. Three pivotal moments in American history. And through it all, Americans drew comfort from the words of the “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The playing of our national anthem at sporting events is inextricably linked to our nation’s respect for those who serve in our military and risk their lives to protect our cherished freedoms.
The United States is unique among all of the countries of the world in that our national anthem is about our flag. It’s not about saving a monarchy or even, principally, about our country. It is about our flag, and what it signifies. Our pledge of allegiance, too, is unique for that same reason. We pledge allegiance to the flag.
The football players who have chosen to kneel during the anthem have done more than disrespect our flag and our men and women in the military; they have also shown their contempt for a large portion of their fan base.
This past Sunday, I skipped the Washington Redskins game, for which I had tickets. I chose, instead, to use my time to make a list of NFL sponsors to encourage fellow Americans to join me in boycotting the NFL and its sponsors.
Patriots off the field who are thoroughly unimpressed by certain football players’ antics have the opportunity to grab the NFL’s attention by engaging in another form of protest - a boycott of all the NFL’s sponsors.
Boycotts are a highly effective form of protest. They’re also about as American as, well, standing for the national anthem at a sporting event.