Column: Oh, Say Can You See What So Rotely We Sing?

  • A United States flag is displayed during the national anthem before an NFL football game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the New Orleans Saints, Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Gary Landers)

For the Valley News
Saturday, December 01, 2018

When the Handel Society gave its fall concert, Brahms’s German Requiem, in Spaulding Auditorium a couple of weeks ago, a remarkable thing happened: The concert began without Robert Duff, the conductor, asking everyone to stand and sing The Star-Spangled Banner. The same thing happened (or didn’t happen) at the Nugget Theater prior to a screening of The Old Man and the Gun, the motion picture starring Robert Redford. Incredibly, those assembled to watch the movie did not feel obligated to stand and sing the national anthem.

Not so with sporting events. Part of the expectation at these spectacles is that the assembled congregation will rise and sing a patriotic song — one that, because of its range, is all but unsingable by untrained voices — or at least stand in rapt and respectful silence.

Why? The origins of a “national anthem” probably date to the singing of La Marseillaise late in the 18th century to rally citizens in Marseille to repulse the invasion of the Prussians and the Austrians. The lyrics for The Star-Spangled Banner come from a poem, Defence of Fort M’Henry, written by Francis Scott Key after witnessing the bombardment of the fort by the British during the War of 1812.

Paradoxically, the words were set to the music of a popular English song, written by John Stafford Smith, and one wag suggested that British troops fled in terror when they heard it sung. The Star-Spangled Banner was designated the national anthem by congressional resolution on March 3, 1931.

Why has the practice of singing the national anthem become mandatory at sporting events and not at, say, rock concerts?

A colleague tells me that it began in the early decades of the 20th century as a way to allay popular suspicions of spectator sports. Apparently, many sporting events were marred by drunkenness and hooliganism, and team owners believed that if they could cloak the event in nationalism it would provide at least a measure of respectability and, not incidentally, boost attendance. The Star-Spangled Banner was sung during the seventh inning of game one of the 1918 World Series, a year and a half into the Great War. Major League Baseball used it intermittently after World War I, and the commissioner of the National Football League, Elmer Layden, required it for NFL games following World War II.

As sociologists say, once a precedent, twice a tradition. Over the decades, the tradition of singing the national anthem at sporting events has become so ingrained in American life that few call it into question — until somebody does call it into question, or tries to rejig the rote exercise into a higher expression of patriotism.

José Feliciano, the Puerto Rican-born singer and guitarist, may have opened the doors with his bluesy rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner in Detroit before game five of the 1968 World Series between the Tigers and the St. Louis Cardinals. A week later, John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their black-gloved fists during the national anthem on the awards podium at the Mexico City Olympics. They wore black socks and no shoes to protest the persistence of poverty among African-Americans.

More recently, Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem to protest the recurrence of police brutality against people of color also tampered with tradition. Donald Trump suggested that athletes who refuse to stand for The Star-Spangled Banner should be fired, and he made a show of singing it at a White House gathering (though he appeared not to know all of the words).

The moguls who run the National Football League (which enjoyed tax-exempt status from 1966 until 2015, by the way) decided that Kaepernick must pay the price for his insubordination. Kaepernick, who led his team to the Super Bowl in 2013, has by almost any measure been blackballed by the NFL. He has not played professional football since the 2016 season, although he continues to work out six days a week to keep himself in game condition.

When Nike introduced a new ad campaign featuring Kaepernick and his stand for conscience, the reaction was mixed. Some angry fans destroyed their Nike gear, and the company’s stock took a hit. His Nike T-shirt, on the other hand, sold out.

Judging by the reaction, you’d think that Kaepernick had committed a sacrilege. And perhaps he did.

In an age when religiosity is falling, due in part to the crass politicization of faith in recent decades, sports may be America’s new civil religion. The athletic arena has become the venue where the rituals of nationalism and dissent are played out.

But something tells me this will not end well. I’ve long been suspicious of compulsory expressions of piety, whether religious or political. Some years ago, I made my only visit to Yankee Stadium. The game was a blowout, and we decided to leave in the middle of the fifth inning. As we moved toward the exits, however, we were blocked by yellow-shirted security guards with their arms extended, gripping chains. Apparently, we had committed the unpardonable sin of trying to leave the stadium during the singing of God Bless America.

How is that not a species of fascism?

Perhaps it’s time to retire the practice of opening sporting events with the national anthem. If fans are so intent on expressing their nationalistic piety, let them do so spontaneously. Either that, or extend the practice of singing the national anthem prior to movies and concerts.

Perhaps we should sing the national anthem while standing in line at the post office or before sitting down at the blackjack table.

And what about Black Friday, as shoppers crowd at stores waiting to be let into the building? Wouldn’t that be a good occasion for belting out The Star-Spangled Banner? After 9/11, let’s recall, George W. Bush suggested that the highest form of patriotism for Americans was to go shopping. A verse or two of the national anthem while waiting in line for Walmart to open would surely mark us as sufficiently patriotic.

Perhaps only then will we appreciate the emptiness of the ritual, especially at a time when not all Americans experience this nation as the land of the free.

Randall Balmer, the John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth, is the author of more than a dozen books, including Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter.