How the National Anthem Got Tangled Up With American Sports

Like most relationships, it’s complicated

Former Senior Fellow
Tampa Bay Buccaneers players link arms on the sidelines during the national anthem before the game against the Minnesota Vikings, September 24, 2017 (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers players link arms on the sidelines during the national anthem before the game against the Minnesota Vikings, September 24, 2017 (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

Listen to President Donald Trump, or any one weighing in after more than 200 NFL players took a knee during the Star Spangled Banner on Sunday, and you might think that there’s a very simple right and wrong way to listen to the national anthem, or register our objections to it. The truth is, though, that the history of playing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at American sporting events is complicated.

While there is evidence of "The Star-Spangled Banner" being played at occasional baseball games as far back as 1862, the song didn’t become a staple at sporting events until 1918—two years after President Woodrow Wilson decreed it the national anthem by executive order. (Congress followed suit and made it even more official in 1931). On September 6, 1918, during a World Series between the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs—how strange does that sound?—the band in Chicago played "The Star Spangled Banner" during the seventh-inning stretch. The U.S. was in the midst of World War I, and Cubs’ third baseman Fred Thomas, on leave from the Navy at the time, saluted the flag in response to hearing the anthem. Other players followed Thomas’ lead, and the crowd sang along. The moment was so stirring that the New York Times chose to highlight it, writing, “First the song was taken up by a few, then others joined, and when the final notes came, a great volume of melody rolled across the field. 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.”

The Cubs realized they were on to something, and played the anthem during the seventh-inning stretch for the next two games in Chicago. When the series returned to Boston—where the Red Sox would win in six games, their last title for 86 years—the Red Sox tried to outdo the Cubs by playing the anthem at the beginning of the games. A tradition had been born, and over the next few decades, it became a more frequent, but not universal, practice to kick off both baseball and football games with the anthem, especially on special occasions like holidays or opening day.

One complicating factor was cost: As Marc Ferris, anthem expert and author of the book  The Star-Spangled Banner said on NPR in 2016, “The thing is, you had to hire a band. That was expensive, so it was only for special occasions.” Following World War II, the invention of sound systems allowed venues to play a recording of the song at virtually no marginal cost. “And thus,” Ferris added, “they started to play it before every game.”

But even though the anthem has kicked off most professional games in our major sports leagues for about 70 years, there have been controversies about it for nearly as long. During the Orioles’ first season in Baltimore in 1954—they had previously been the St. Louis Browns—their patriotic general manager, Arthur Ehlers, made a public announcement that he would limit the playing of the anthem. Ehlers’ objection was not at all about America or the anthem itself, but about the crowd. He felt that “crowds at stadiums and other sports arenas have a way of continuing to laugh and talk and move about while the anthem is being played. That applies to fights, wrestling matches, stock-car races and baseball games. To me it is very distasteful.” (One wonders what Ehlers would have made of Orioles’ fans’ current practice of shouting a loud “O” for Orioles during the “Oh, say can you see” verse of the anthem.) Ehlers plan, like that of the Cubs, was to play it only on special occasions. But his new policy provoked a community backlash, and the Baltimore City Council passed a resolution calling for the playing of the anthem before every game, and not just on special occasions. From then on, the Orioles then made starting games with "The Star-Spangled Banner" their standard practice.

In the 1960s, objections to rowdy fans morphed into objections to American policy. In the 1968 Olympics, African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously raised their fists in a black power salute on the medal podium while "The Star-Spangled Banner" played, protesting American treatment of African-Americans. Washington’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture has a statue depicting the two athletes, fists held high.

In the 1972 Munich Olympic games, two other African-American sprinters, Wayne Collett and Vince Matthews, did not do the black power salute; instead they stood around casually, and, some would say, disrespectfully during the song. Their different poses, however, did not bring about a different result; like Smith and Carlos, both were suspended from the U.S. team. In another amateur level protest, in 1970, a high school football player in Skokie, Illinois, would not remove his helmet during the anthem because of his objections to American foreign policy. He was suspended by the coach but reinstated by his principal. As the principal, Gilbert Weldy, put it, “People talk while the anthem is being played, eat hot dogs and drink Cokes, visit with friends and pay no attention to it. … So why bother at all?” Weldy asked. He answered, somewhat cynically, “The only thing the national anthem accomplishes before a sports event is that it helps numb the crowd for a minute or two.”

At the professional level, though, protests against the anthem were almost unheard of. Professional athletes were a fairly patriotic bunch. In fact, players, regardless of race, helped enforce standards of patriotism among the fans. African-American baseball great Reggie Jackson said in 1977, “When I’m in the outfield facing the flag, I see kids messing around, laughing and wrestling when the song is being played. Afterward, I go over and tell them, ‘Either you stand at attention for our national anthem or you go over to China and see how you like it. You don’t stand at attention over there, they shoot you.’” And in one legendary incident in the bicentennial year of 1976, Los Angeles Dodgers’ outfielder Rick Monday stopped two protesters from burning an American flag in the outfield at Dodger Stadium, running across the field and snatching the flag out of their hands before they could set it alight. Despite a pretty good 19-year major league career, Monday is still best known for this incident.

The national anthem made news in 1977, when Sports Illustrated reportedthat buttoned-down NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle “issued orders against talking, nervous footwork, gum chewing and shoulder-pad slamming during The Banner.” But there the issue was about decorum, not politics. (This was the same Rozelle who, in the 1980s, would fine Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon for having an unauthorized corporate logo—“Adidas” on his headband. McMahon responded to the controversy by writing “ROZELLE” in black marker on the headband for his next game. Rozelle thought it was “funny as hell,” but kept the fine in place.)

This long, largely controversy-free history is why the recent anti-anthem protests, kicked off by Colin Kaepernick last season, have been so remarkable. Never before have professional athletes en mass objected to, or even questioned, the practice of starting games with the anthem.

Still, it’s a certainty that the protests would not have been as widespread as they were this weekend had not Trump made anthem-slighting into a presidential cause, encouraging the NFL to fire players choosing to take a knee during "The Star-Spangled Banner." And here Trump needs to be careful. The history of presidents messing with football has not been pretty—for the presidents. Richard Nixon, for example, was such a huge fan that he would send in plays to Washington Redskins Coach George Allen. One of Nixon’s plays failed so badly that humorist Art Buchwald wrote, “If George Allen doesn’t accept any more plays from Richard Nixon, he may go down in history as one of pro football’s greatest coaches.” At another point, Nixon deemed the undefeated 1969 University of Texas Longhorns that year’s national champion. (This was before there was a playoff to determine a champion on the field.) Nixon’s move angered Joe Paterno, the coach of the also undefeated Penn State Nittany Lions. When Nixon faced his own troubles a few years later, Paterno got his revenge by musing, “How could Nixon know so little about Watergate and so much about football?”