Why should we proclaim devotion to America before sporting events?

Published 11:11 am Friday, October 28, 2016

I remember news shows during the war in Viet Nam. When a camera crew caught someone burning the American flag in protest, I got very angry. When I saw images of the flag on the floor of more than one art gallery as an expression of free creativity, I got very angry. How dare a citizen desecrate Old Glory. Those thoughts about the flag rushed back to me recently when a professional football player refused to stand for the National Anthem.

Then last night after sitting down to watch a game on TV, I was very angry at the rendering of the National Anthem. The singer clearly wanted to put her stamp on the song. At least she got most of the words right, which some famous star didn’t a few years ago (and then laughed about it). I think it would be worth asking which is worse: athletes kneeling in protest during the anthem, singers turning the anthem into look-at-me moments, the NFL getting paid for patriotic tributes before games, or flag ceremonies that use field-sized flags that have been cut in the shape of the United States. Should the 25% athletes who are not citizens have to go through the drill?

The “Star-Spangled Banner” was performed as early as 1897 during opening day ceremonies for baseball in Philadelphia and then more regularly at the Polo Grounds in New York City in 1898. They played “The Star-Spangled Banner” during the seventh inning stretch of Game 1 of the 1918 World Series (the final year of World War I) and it became a growing baseball tradition afterwards.

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Over time the Anthem and the flag have become props for some sports events. In the process they have been mutilated beyond all reason. On April 10, 1918, John Charles Linthicum, U.S. Congressman from Maryland, introduced a bill to officially recognize “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem. The bill did not pass. On April 15, 1929, Linthicum introduced the bill again, his sixth time doing so. On November 3, 1929, Robert Ripley drew a panel in his syndicated cartoon, Ripley’s Believe it or Not!, saying “Believe It or Not, America has no national anthem”.

In 1930, Veterans of Foreign Wars started a petition for the United States to officially recognize “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem. Five million people signed the petition. The petition was presented to the United States House Committee on the Judiciary on January 31, 1930 On the same day, Elsie Jorss-Reilley and Grace Evelyn Boudlin sang the song to the Committee in order to refute the perception that it was too high pitched for a typical person to sing. The Committee voted in favor of sending the bill to the House floor for a vote. The House of Representatives passed the bill later that year. The Senate passed the bill on March 3, 1931. President Herbert Hoover signed the bill on March 4, 1931, officially adopting “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem of the United States of America.

For what reason should the nation’s sports fans proclaim their devotion to the country every time athletes prepare for action? It’s a game we’re about to watch, not the Battle of Iwo Jima. You don’t hear it at the opera, at the theater, at the concert hall. You don’t hear it at the most democratic of all institutions, town meetings.

Perhaps the song should be sung on occasion, as it was soon after the Boston Marathon bombing. At a game in Madison Square Garden, the entire crowd sang it in unison. It would have been appropriate on a certain Sunday in 1941 — after the game instead of before it. Recently, one of the school choirs sang the anthem before the Saltillo game. Now that, folks, is the way it should sound!

Let’s save a discussion of the sad handling of our flag for another day. A personal note to close: In 1956 as a high school senior, I spent much time at the Louisville radio station, WLSM. At shut-down time one Saturday afternoon, I couldn’t find the record with the Anthem. Frantically, I went on the air, asking folks who might know where the station manager was to have him call the station. Must have sounded like a dingaling!

At straight up five o’clock, I took the station off the air, wondering if I’d go to prison.

TJ Ray is a retired professor of English at Ole Miss.