Sports

Why Do We Ever Play the National Anthem at Sports Games?

The Dallas Mavericks’ failed attempt to cancel it raises the question of why we do this in the first place.

The Mavs and Pels stand for the anthem as the American flag is shown on the Jumbotron above the mostly empty arena
The national anthem is played before a game between the New Orleans Pelicans and the Dallas Mavericks on Friday in Dallas. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Sometime before the NBA regular season, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told NBA commissioner Adam Silver that his team wasn’t going to play the national anthem before home games. And why would it, given the pandemic? There were no fans, and the players certainly wouldn’t miss it. Silver said fine.

And for 12 preseason and regular season games, no one noticed. Then last week, Tim Cato of the Athletic did notice. Cuban confirmed his decision, and the NBA defended it, saying that, “Under the unique circumstances of this season, teams are permitted to run their pre-game operations as they see fit.”

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Then came the predictable blowback, and within 24 hours, the NBA came up with an excuse: Since it was starting to let fans back into arenas, the league once again would require teams to play “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “in keeping with longstanding league policy.” After the league’s ruling, Cuban put out a statement. One sentence was about respect for the passion some people have for the anthem. The next four sentences were about why the anthem is problematic. “We also loudly hear the voices of those who feel that the Anthem does not represent them,” Cuban wrote. “We feel that their voices need to be respected and heard, because they have not been.”

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On this week’s episode of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen, the show’s hosts discussed the controversies around playing the anthem before sports games, Cuban’s decision, and the NBA’s ultimate ruling. A portion of that conversation is transcribed below. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Stefan Fatsis: Joel, you know that Cuban believes that playing the anthem before games is bullshit. Should he have fought this?

Joel Anderson: The shorter answer is, I don’t know if Mark Cuban had a choice. You remember that Mark Cuban told ESPN that he made the decision to stop playing the anthem after consulting with Adam Silver, the commissioner. So this wasn’t something he felt that he could do unilaterally in the first place. And I don’t know what sort of power governors or owners, as we used to call them, have to defy league orders. He clearly didn’t feel empowered to do this on his own.

So he may have not had a choice, but I suppose that he could have made more of a stink about it—like he does about officiating or the league’s failure to take advantage of various financial opportunities or even, like, Bitcoin, right? When he feels passionate about something, he tends to speak up about it and speak up about it forcefully. He’s carried himself out figuratively as a maverick, right? That he’s different from the other owners and that he will talk about things, and he’s quoted as much or more than any other NBA owner in the league. So if he felt really passionately about this, I assume that he would have said more about it.

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I think the easy answer here is that obviously the NBA shouldn’t be playing the national anthem before games. It’s clear that no one cared until a single person noticed that, Hey, we’re not going through our little compulsory patriotism routine. So, until that one person spoke up, nobody cared.

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So, Mark Cuban, man, should he have said something? Should he have stood up? I don’t know. I’m not surprised he didn’t, because this is all about not offending the league’s tenuous hold on white fans. Because the NBA has some intractable issues to overcome that other sports simply don’t. It’s a majority Black league, and it’s a Black league in a way that the other professional sports leagues are.

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So I imagine that the pressure from the NBA, especially in a city like Dallas—which is often referred to as the city that the civil rights movement missed—that it’s incredible. And you know that when push came to shove that they weren’t going to draw a hard line about this. So, I don’t know.

Josh, you’re from the South too. You know that there’s a lot of pressure to be a patriot down there and to prove that you’re an American. But I don’t know where Mark Cuban would have gone or what he could have done any differently, so to speak.

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Josh Levin: Well, in political debates like this, Joel, there’s a question when you’re, like, an activist or an advocate: Do you spend your time and energy and resources pressuring the people that are kind of closer to your side, or the people that hold a wildly different opinion? Because it seems a little bit misplaced to me to be upset with Mark Cuban in all of this as the person who actually enacted this and then, like, ultimately backed down. As opposed to any of the other dudes who run NBA teams, who would have never considered it in the first place and probably will never consider it. So I think credit to Cuban for getting this on people’s radar, because it’s the kind of thing where I think—I don’t want to say we or us, but I think I would include myself in this number, where you just don’t think about it until someone points it out or brings attention to it.

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And you’re like, “Yeah, that is crazy that we do that.” But we just kind of move through the world, accepting this. And so, I think the fact is that we wouldn’t be having this conversation if it wasn’t for Mark Cuban. And so I give him credit for at least doing something and forcing us out of the complacency around this issue.

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Stefan, you did a bunch of work compiling the history of the anthem [in sports], and like everything else, it’s like the anthem in sports was a thing that was created and invented, and it became kind of compulsory. But it hasn’t been that way forever.

Fatsis: No. And to put a button on Cuban, I think that’s the right interpretation. He did something—as Ray Ratto pointed out on Defector—that was very uncharacteristic for him. He showed how much the anthem doesn’t matter, and he did it without ever saying a word. Mark Cuban, usually, as you noted, Joel, is going to talk about everything. And in this case he just did it, demonstrated that nobody gives a shit. And then, it’s worth reading his full statement. I read only a little bit of it [above], but it really is very supportive ultimately of the idea that, A: This is unnecessary, and B: A lot of our employees think that it is disrespectful, and people don’t understand how they feel when they hear this played. And what, as we’ve seen over the last, not just year, but going back to Kaep is how much it does affect people.

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Levin: I also forgot to mention that there’s a parallel with [Colin] Kaepernick, in that nobody noticed that he was sitting [during the national anthem] until somebody wrote about it.

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Fatsis: Until a reporter noticed. And in both cases, Kaepernick and Cuban were trying to make the point subtly. And that’s certainly unusual from Mark Cuban. And it’s unusual for a lot of athletes who would just go to a podium and do the thing that you said, Josh, which is to draw attention to their side, as opposed to quietly undercutting the arguments of other people.

In terms of the history, yeah, this is not clear or linear or uniform. The anthem was played, like, once in 1862 before a baseball game. There’s a real good ESPN piece about that history. And then it wasn’t played regularly until the 1918 World Series during World War I, and there was a whole lot of stuff going on, and they played it and then it was very erratically used and sporadically used after that. It was not a universal constant, Let’s play this before every sporting event. It was much less consistent; not every team abided by it; not every sport abided by it. And it only really, in more recent years, became something that—when I say recent, I mean the last half-century—became ingrained in sports culture.

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Anderson: Yeah. And I find that’s probably not a surprise given how swiftly the culture and society have moved in the last half-century. Where, I mean just to be honest, that Black people have rights and opinions that at least are heard in the public square in ways that they weren’t previously. And so all of a sudden, it’s not a surprise that people would grasp on the national anthem as some sort of way to prove your loyalty to this country.

But I guess the thing about this is that even for Mark Cuban and the NBA, not playing the national anthem and not giving athletes an opportunity to kneel—I can actually understand if you took the national anthem out of the equation, then you would not have kneeling as an issue either. So it actually served to help the NBA and the Mavericks, so that you can avoid that particular sort of protest and that particular kind of symbolism. And I’m actually sort of surprised that the leagues want to relitigate this battle over and over again. If they took it away, you wouldn’t have any Black players to respond to kneeling or anything else, right?

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Fatsis: But on some level, the NBA not only endorsed kneeling, but it wouldn’t surprise me [if] Adam Silver was quietly, and he was publicly supportive of the players’ protest during the anthem. So you could certainly take a counterargument that, “Hey, continuing to play the anthem gives the players the opportunity to express feelings that the league executives and some of its owners certainly support.”

Anderson: I mean, I guess they’re the ones that are making this compulsory. And wasn’t it just a few months ago, I mean, a couple of years ago—it wasn’t in the last year, and I should have known this off the top of my head—that Adam Silver was saying that any player that kneeled was going to be fined? So …

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Levin: It’s a rule in the NBA that you have to stand, and it just hasn’t been enforced.

Anderson: Right, exactly. So we can say [whatever] we think that Adam Silver and the owners might believe about their players kneeling and whether or not they support them. But in terms of the rules on the books, which they are in charge of, they could change this. They could change that particular rule. And they decided not to. But to be honest, I mean, kneeling isn’t nearly as effective as it was five years ago anyway. Right? This is sort of a played-out bit of activism or protest. Kneeling has become so watered down that I’ve lived long enough to see Jerry Jones kneel alongside his players, get booed, and then decree that anybody on his team that takes a knee will be punished in some sort of way.

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So, I mean it’s in terms of making some sort of a statement. I feel like, “OK, well we’ve sort of been there, done that. It’s probably time to move on.” And if you took the national anthem away, you wouldn’t have that issue anymore. And there would have to be some sort of other way to generate interest around Black Lives Matter and these other issues.

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Levin: There, is a third way, Joel. Which is that when Megan Rapinoe started kneeling to support Kaepernick way back in 2016, the then-owner of the Washington NWSL franchise, their solution was: We’re going to play the national anthem before the players come out on the field. And so you cut off the opportunity to kneel, and you still play the anthem. These owners are clever.

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I will say this: On anything to do with patriotism, once it gets instituted, it’s really hard to roll it back. Think of flag pins after 9/11 and politicians. You’re not going to see a time when a politician would be like, “Eh, we’re not going to wear the flag pin anymore.” That’s over with. So, like, once you make it kind of culturally normed that we’re going to play patriotic music before a sporting event, it’s really hard to stop doing that without—I don’t know if it’s fear or legitimate belief that, like, “Oh, that means you hate America if you’re not doing it anymore.”

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But the thing that I find so interesting is this idea that the past year during the pandemic, it’s a time when rules don’t—the normal way of doing things and the normal rules are kind of suspended. In the bubble, you had players wearing these phrases on the back of their jerseys. You had this allowance being given for kneeling and for players being more outspoken than is typical. And now we’re back in our arenas and there’s a kind of uneasy transition back to the old rules and way of doing things. Like, originally Adam Silver said, “Yeah, because the fans aren’t in the stands, then it’s OK not to play the anthem.” And then there’s the blowback, [and] he is like, “Actually, no, we do need to play the anthem.”

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And so the inverse doesn’t really apply, Stefan. Where it’s like, OK, if you have a patriotic thing, you can’t get rid of it. Now that there has been this allowance for, all right, maybe we can skip the anthem or maybe we can kneel during the anthem. That stuff can get taken away. That stuff has not become the new normal, and the transition back to the old way of doing things, I think is going to be fraught. And that’s what we’re seeing with this Mavericks situation.

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Fatsis: Yeah. Adam Silver certainly had the opportunity to leave it up to teams. We have one now, and he had an example of a team making a decision that had no impact; no one noticed. And he could have just said going forward, we think it’s in the best interest of the league to allow individual teams to make the decision on what to do. And I think that would allow right-wing owners, who are still the majority in the NBA and in all professional sports, to exert whatever sort of influence they wanted to on their teams and more progressive people like Mark Cuban to say, we’re not doing it, period.

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Levin: Stefan said “more progressive.” He didn’t say “progressive.”

Fatsis: I wouldn’t go that far, would you?

Anderson: I was like, “Oh wow, OK.”

Fatsis: How far do you want me to go? I mean, he’s not that progressive. But, I don’t know if it’s a question of, again, commercial fear, sponsor fear, fan blowback. It’s the timidity that is involved in going along with the history here, instead of saying, we’re going to try to do this differently. We’re going to listen to our athletes. [WNBA player] Brittney Griner and her [Phoenix Mercury] teammate Brianna Turner during the bubble said that we don’t think [the anthem] should be played at all. That’s a valid [opinion, that it should not] ever [be] played before sporting events. And for someone like Mark Cuban to listen to athletes, but also follow through with it and take a stand against the league or encourage an alternative solution, like giving me the individual ability to do that, would be one step forward.

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Anderson: Yeah. It’s interesting you said that about what Brittney Griner said about, we don’t think it should be played at all. Because that’s the thing very few athletes have actually come out and said: You should not play the national anthem. Basically what they said is that if you want to stand, it’s fine. Go right ahead. We want to opt out of that. And if you remember back at the beginning of the bubble, when Meyers Leonard of the Miami Heat, who is white—even though you wouldn’t know it from his name—he stood for the anthem and two of his teammates wrapped their arms around him as they knelt. Right? So what, the thing that I kind of just can’t get over here is that essentially Black people and Black players in particular are just asking people to respect their decisions. They’re not saying like—when Gregg Popovich and Becky Hammon wanted to stand during the anthem, nobody called them out.* They were just like, “That’s fine. You go right ahead and do it. We’re going to kneel.” And that’s the only thing, Black people and Black Americans, people just cannot stand a critique from them no matter what form it comes in. And so even if we say we respect your right to stand, please respect our right to kneel. Even that just goes too far. And it’s just really disappointing, because this has just been an ongoing issue my entire life. Before I was born, it was John Carlos and Tommie Smith. When I was a teenager, it was Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. There’s Toni Smith-Thompson at Manhattanville College in the early aughts, and to Colin Kaepernick.* And it just feels like we’re still having this debate over and over again. And it’s just a matter of respecting Black people’s right to dissent. And it’s not respected in this country. And that’s why we keep ending up here over and over again.

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Levin: Yeah. And some essential background here that we haven’t mentioned is that Francis Scott Key called Black people a distinct and inferior race. And so it’s not just about what is happening in the country, now. It’s what this song means and where it came from. And I also think it’s important to remember when the NFL in Week 1 of the 2020 season decided that they were going to have “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in tandem with the national anthem as the kind of like, most mealy-mouthed possible solution. It’s the five-blade razor of fixes. Just keep adding more songs until we figure this thing out.

Listen to this original segment on Hang Up and Listen below, or subscribe to the show on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotifyStitcherGoogle Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Correction, Feb. 18, 2021: This article originally misspelled Becky Hammon’s last name and Toni Smith-Thompson’s first name.

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