Line Change: Is It Time To Call Off The Pre-Game National Anthem?

How many times has this been said? “Keep politics out of sports.”

With that in mind, perhaps it’s time to get rid of the pre-game national anthem.

First, let’s look at how anthems began at sporting events.

National anthems were first played at a sporting event in 1918, in the the 7th inning stretch during the World Series final. Except the USA didn’t officially make the Star-Spangled Banner their anthem until 1931. Anthems again came into vogue during World War II, and by the end of the war, the anthem was ingrained in baseball culture, and soon spread to other sports.

The anthem was originally used at war time to gain public support for the war effort. It appears since then, the United States government learned the value of these patriotic displays, with the US Defence Department handing out millions of dollars to the NFL, MLB, NHL, and MLS for national anthem performances, military-appreciation nights, and activities promoting the military. The practice, which was called “paid patriotism” by Republican senators, has since been banned after a 2015 report exposed the practice.

Playing the anthem prior to North American sports is nothing but political in this regard.

And the major professional sports leagues are businesses correct? But most places of work don’t mandate the national anthem prior to the start of the work day. Or if you consider these leagues entertainment, then why don’t we play the anthem prior to concerts or movies?

If it’s just about sports, why don’t youth sports play the anthem prior to Timbit hockey or soccer?

The playing of the national anthem was further politicized recently when Mark Cuban stated the Dallas Mavericks wouldn’t be playing the anthem before NBA games. Cuban lost this battle, and the move saw Texas’ lieutenant governor push through the “Star-Spangled Banner Act” mandating the anthem be played at any event receiving public funding.

The national anthem isn’t a practice in most countries when it comes to professional sports (think of the English Premier League), and Major League Soccer used the opportunity of a fan-free pandemic season to remove the anthem in their return-to-play event.

Considering the international nature of many professional teams, it does seem odd to force Canadian and US patriotism upon players.

For example, the current Major League Soccer champions, the Columbus Crew had 8 Americans and 13 International players on their roster.

The Stanley Cup Champions from last season, the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning had 4 Americans on their roster. The Toronto Maple Leafs had 13 Canadians on their current roster and 13 International players.

So why is the anthem still being played?

Well, in many cases, the fans seem to enjoy the tradition. In cities like Edmonton, singing the Canadian national anthem as a crowd has become as much a part of the pre-game tradition as warm up itself.

If anthems are an integral part of the fan experience, perhaps leagues should simply change when the anthem is played, broadcasting the song prior to athletes taking the ice, field, or court. But this seems like a bit of a dodge.

For many, the anthem is a moment of pride, and cohesion, like when thousands banded together to sing at the Toronto Raptors victory party. Or an anthem can signify a special occasion, such as when individuals are sworn in as Canadian citizens.

But that isn’t the case for everyone, including players in these leagues. Mandatory patriotism seems to cause as much division as it does a sense of belonging, especially in light of political divisions in Canada and the United States, along with ongoing issues of racial injustice. As well, in the continuing efforts to decolonize sport, anthems are problematic.

Anthems serve in many ways as a litmus test for inclusivity in their language, origins, and use.

While for some, the anthem prior to any game can be a special moment, it seems anthems could be best saved for International events in recognition of the winner of games, or champion of an event. At least in International competition, you can guarantee all athletes on a given team are proudly playing for their nation. Seeing the flag raised and hearing the anthem played at the Olympics or World Championships is an unforgettable experience for athletes.

In the realm of professional sports however, the time for national anthems has likely passed. The athletes are paid employees, and the fans are there to watch the game. As free individuals, those fans and athletes should have the right to choose their version of patriotism, or lack thereof. This seems to be especially true in leagues where political activism by athletes has become the norm.

Is it time to drop the puck, throw the opening pitch, or kick off, without the national anthem? Is it time, as so many sports readers have said, to leave politics out of sports? Because if it is, the time for the anthem has passed.

Or is the anthem now an inseparable portion of the sporting experience?

According to the government of Canada website, “There is no specific rule as to when it is appropriate to sing the national anthem at an event. It is up to the organizers to determine if “O Canada” will be sung at the beginning or at the end of a ceremony….There is no law or behaviour governing the playing of the national anthem; it is left to the good citizenship of individuals.”

Therefore, it seems leagues and athletes need to make the decision, as good citizens, as to whether the anthem still belongs in their leagues and games, if it represents their players and fans.

It it does, play it, if it doesn’t, don’t.

What do you think?

Line Change is an article series produced by through the contributions and consultation of various authors and academics, looking at social issues in sport. The series, which aims to open discussion with sports fans, will focus on issues of inequality, and serve as a portion of our anti-oppression education and reporting. Line Change will look at issues related to racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, gender inequality, socioeconomic divides, and much more, as they relate to sport and athletics.

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