Why is Our National Anthem a Ritual Played Before Sports Games?

By Alex R. ’23

The national anthem of the United States has a history that not many people are familiar with. Originally composed by Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was based off of a popular British drinking song. While the song spread across the east coast pretty rapidly after the war, it was still not seen as the most significant patriotic song at the time, in that it trailed a certain tune known as “Yankee Doodle” in popularity. In the years to follow, “The Star-Spangled Banner” slowly became more and more associated with the flag of the United States and by the time the Civil War came around, the song had also grown significantly in popularity. The nature of the Civil War, mainly how states in the South wanted to leave the Union, resulted in increasing significance and importance of the United States flag, in that it represented national unity in a time of immense division. As such, “The Star-Spangled Banner” came to represent that as well, and by the 1890s, the military began using the song to go along with the raising and lowering of the flag, which is what a lot of people think of when they hear the song. Finally in 1916, Woodrow Wilson signed an executive order, making “The Star-Spangled Banner” the official national anthem of the United States. 

As of right now, the national anthem is a tune that most in the United States are fairly familiar with. Why is that the case? Chances are, the average person in the US will hear the national anthem most before sporting events. This tradition is one that has been around for quite some time now. In fact, the first time the national anthem was played during a sporting event was just over 100 years ago before a World Series game in Chicago. The anthem was played during the seventh inning stretch, a momentary pause between innings. There had been some tensions in the Chicago area in the days leading up to the game, including a bombing of the Chicago Federal Building a couple days before. However, when the anthem was played during the seventh inning stretch, all of that tension fell away as spectators and fans all took in the spectacle that was “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Considering the historical context of this event, in that it was around the time of World War I, patriotism was high, something that could have played a role in the reception of the anthem at the time. Soon after, the national anthem began to be played across the league, and later became a tradition before games in not only baseball, but other American sports as well.

Having gone through the history of the anthem and the tradition of it being played before sports games, certain conclusions can be made about the validity of this tradition, in that the anthem serves as a frequent reminder of the importance of national unity or of our fallen heroes. On the other hand, many might argue that today’s America is different from the America of the early 20th century. As touched on previously, the World Wars of the 20th century brought about a very strong sense of national unity, something that could have corresponded to the overwhelming respect most had for the national anthem. However, in this moment in our country’s history, our country is as divided as it’s been for a long time, and the nature of people’s responses to the national anthem portray that as well. 

In addition, the demographics of players in many American sports leagues are vastly different from what they were 50 to 100 years ago. Major League Baseball is a perfect example of this. According to a study conducted by the Study for American Baseball Research, in 1947, only 0.7% of all players in the MLB were Latino, an ethnic group that makes up for most of the foreign players. The overwhelming majority of the remaining players were white, with a few being African Americans. This comes in great contrast to what the demographics of Major League Baseball look like now, in that now around 29.5% of players are from Latin American or Asian countries. As such, imagine being a foreign born player playing baseball in America and having to respect the national anthem every time you hear it being played before a game. For most it isn’t a big deal, however it again begs the question as to why the anthem is still being played, especially in light of increasingly diverse demographics in terms of nationalities. 

If you look at other international sports, say soccer in Europe, the national anthem is never played before matches. Instead, there is usually another anthem that is played, one that is not a national anthem and is rather a song that is associated with the league. This way, no players of a different national origin than the nation in which the game is being played feel uncomfortable in the buildup to  a match. In addition, no one seems to have any sort of problem with that, and it seems like an ideal alternative to the playing of the national anthem before games in the United States should the tradition be questioned further in the future.

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