The Problem With Mandatory Patriotism in Sports

A basketball arena  with the players standing in a circle around center court and video screens showing the American flag above empty stands
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Playing the “The Star-Spangled Banner” at sporting events has become an empty gesture of patriotism—so empty that, when the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks quietly began skipping the ritual, 13 preseason and regular-season games passed before anyone noticed.

On Tuesday, The Athletic reported that the Mavericks had abandoned the national anthem, making them the first team in the recent history of major professional sports to take such a stance. The next day, the National Basketball Association issued a statement declaring that every team must play the song, in accordance with league rules. Inevitably, the Mavericks reversed course.

But the Mavericks should have held their ground, because playing the anthem shouldn’t be a pregame ritual in American sports. Not during a time when many people—including many athletes of color—are deeply uncomfortable with how patriotic symbols have been weaponized to undermine and diminish the humanity of Black and brown Americans.

The Mavericks’ owner, Mark Cuban, clearly understood the conflict that the anthem created. “We respect and always have respected the passion people have for the anthem and our country,” he said in a statement. “I have always stood for the anthem with the hand over my heart—no matter where I hear it played. But we also hear the voices of those who do not feel the anthem represents them. We feel they also need to be respected and heard, because they have not been heard. The hope is that those who feel passionate about the anthem being played will be just as passionate in listening to those who do not feel it represents them.”

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Instead of forcing Cuban’s team to back down, the NBA as a whole should revisit its anthem rule. Other leagues should do the same. The ritual enforces a rote, narrow idea of patriotism—one that pro sports should be working to change, not uphold.

Especially for Black Americans who know the origin story of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the anthem has always represented the nation’s hypocrisy more so than its promise. The lyricist was Francis Scott Key, a Maryland slave owner who once said that Africans in America were “a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community.” Key wrote the song during the War of 1812. The second half of its third verse—which includes the lyric “No refuge could save the hireling and slave, from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave”—has been interpreted as mocking or threatening the Black people who escaped their enslavers and fought for the British.

By some accounts, the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at sporting events began during the Civil War and was most common in times of conflict. The song that eventually became the national anthem was meant to rally spectators around American democracy—even if conditions in the United States were deeply unequal. The enshrinement of the anthem into sports ritual wasn’t entirely the result of teams’ or fans’ patriotic feelings. In 2015, the Republican Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake revealed that the NFL, Major League Baseball, and other pro leagues have received millions of dollars from the Defense Department for national-anthem performances, military-appreciation nights, and other activities promoting the military.

Commentators who did not object when the anthem was used for conservative causes became indignant when Colin Kaepernick used it in 2016 to draw attention to police violence against Black people. In taking a knee during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the former NFL quarterback unwittingly created an opportunity for former President Donald Trump and other conservatives to hijack the conversation. As a candidate and as president, Trump criticized Kaepernick’s protest to score political points. Real patriots stood for the anthem, Trump and his supporters insisted. And in their view, those who stood—or peacefully kneeled—against injustice were traitors.

In the years since, Americans have seen far too many images of white supremacists waving the national flag and shouting patriotic slogans. The insurrectionists at the U.S. Capitol did just that, even as they tried to overturn a free election. Trump and many other Republicans who impugned Kaepernick’s patriotism now want the rest of the country to ignore the Capitol riot and move on. If it wasn’t clear before why people of color feel uncomfortable with the conservative definition of patriotism, it should be now.

Amid the renewed attention to forms of racial injustice ingrained in American life, the NBA’s decision to strong-arm teams into playing the national anthem just doesn’t seem right. It will embolden people who insist upon an exclusive form of patriotism. In a direct response to the Mavericks, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick announced on Wednesday that he would fast-track the “Star Spangled Banner Protection Act,” which would require the national anthem to be played at all events that receive public funding.

Last year, the NBA won praise for not standing in the way of its players who wanted to speak out against racial injustice. League policy also obliges individual players to stand for the national anthem, but NBA Commissioner Adam Silver stated publicly that he supported the players’ right to peacefully protest.

Silver likely decided not to demand compliance with the rule because he sensed how many players and fans were feeling. After the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd and the severe wounding of Jacob Blake at the hands of would-be law enforcers last year—which resulted in a brief work stoppage by NBA players—Silver correctly guessed that the heavy-handed application of league rules would have offended players.

When the Mavericks stopped playing the national anthem, Silver should have been similarly accommodating—and taken advantage of the opportunity to lift the league’s anthem rule. Whatever the NBA decided was going to outrage someone. But mandatory patriotism doesn’t give Americans reason for pride; it only highlights the country’s failures.