Column: Why is the national anthem played at sporting events?

Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle and former Army Ranger Alejandro Villanueva (78) stands outside the tunnel alone during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Sept. 23, 2017: The day “stick to sports” died.

Whatever side of the argument you’re on, whether you want to sit or stand for the anthem, we have reached a crossroads in politics and sports where one simply cannot seem to exist without the other. 

This is nothing new. Sports has always been a place where protests against social injustices take place, from Muhammed Ali to Jesse Owens. But never before has a protest been so tied into ideals of patriotism, and only time will tell if these protests turn out to be some of the most pivotal and controversial in history.

All of the animosity and divisiveness can be traced back to a single question: Why do we even play the national anthem at sporting events?

Our journey begins on Sept. 6, 1918. It’s the World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs, and the nation is dealing with the turmoil of what was at that point the deadliest war to Americans since the Civil War. During those times, it was expensive to hire a band to come out and play the anthem for an event, so the anthem was reserved for occasions like Opening Day.

During the seventh-inning stretch, the Star-Spangled Banner triumphantly played from an on-field band. Cubs third baseman Fred Thomas was on furlough from the Navy, and the moment the band began playing the anthem, he immediately saluted and faced the band. Suddenly, players followed in civilian fashion, putting their hands over their hearts, and the crowd followed suit by singing along. By the end of it all, the Cubs front office knew they had just witnessed something beautiful—something they needed to capitalize on the next two games in Chicago.

Their move worked; the crowds grew bigger and bigger each game, and by game three, the crowd was 27,000 strong. Red Sox owner Harry Frazee upped the ante when the series moved to Boston, playing the anthem before the game and bringing wounded soldiers onto the field who had received free tickets. The move was a roaring success.

During that time, many wondered why baseball players who weren’t drafted were opting to play a silly game over serving their country. Having them salute the Star-Spangled Banner during the game bolstered their public image, and the idea of playing the anthem at sporting events caught on with other major league teams.

What makes this even more interesting is the Star-Spangled Banner wasn’t even adopted as the national anthem until 1931; it was the anthem for our national pastime years before it became the anthem to our nation.

Immediately following the 1918 World Series, other major league teams notices how successful playing the anthem was and it became standard during the World Series and holiday games. Over time, the popularity of playing the anthem at games was accompanied with an influx of patriotism over the course of more wars, and it became a daily staple for every league. Coupled with a technological boom that allowed teams to get rid of bands and have the anthem ready to go at the push of a button, there seemed to be no reason why it shouldn’t be played.

But then we get to the 1950s. America was experiencing an unprecedented time of peace and prosperity, and more and more fans were talking, laughing and drinking during the anthem rather than listening to it. (This is still something that happens today—people yell things during the anthem, either cheering for their team or just to be heard, and not everyone feels compelled to take off their hat.) The anthem was still played, but nobody took it to heart like they did post-war.

As time went on, the seriousness of the anthem ebbed and flowed with the tides of war. NFL players never stood on the field for the anthem until 2009 when the government paid the NFL and other professional leagues millions of dollars to have the players do so. That is no longer the case today, and nowhere in the NFL rulebook does it mandate players stand for the anthem.

But the tradition of playing the anthem is deeply rooted in wartime patriotism. Especially in a post-9/11 world where foreign terrorism is at the forefront of everyone’s minds, pride surrounding the anthem may be at its strongest since 1918.


Stephanie Sheehan is the managing editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at stephanie.sheehan@uconn.edu. She tweets @steph_sheehan.