The NFL, WWI, and The Star-Spangled Banner
National anthems are inherently expressions of solidarity among a group of people joined in a political entity, a nation. Anthems are expressions of us and exclusions of them. They unite us because they divide us from outsiders and take on their deepest meaning during times we are threatened by them.
A version of the we versus them mentality will be on display this week in the run up to the 2018 Super Bowl. The ongoing controversy surrounding players kneeling during the national anthem at football games provides an opportunity to step back in time to understand when and how The Star-Spangled Banner became a part of sporting events in America and what that means for us today.
We’ve all learned at some point that Francis Scott Key wrote the song’s lyrics after witnessing the British bombardment of Fort McHenry during the night of September 13-14, 1814. Like many lyricists of the time, Key set the lyrics to an existing tune, The Anacreontic Song. It became an official U.S. Navy song in 1889 and President Wilson further recognized the anthem in 1916, though it did not become the nation’s official anthem until 1931.
Through the early 1910s, the anthem was well-known, but seldom played outside of military or veterans’ ceremonies and selected band and symphony concerts. Newspaper articles and letters to the editor of the era regularly noted that many Americans did not know the anthem’s first verse or understand the protocol requiring all present to stand for the anthem and face the flag, with men baring their heads if not in uniform.
Increased attention came to The Star-Spangled Banner in 1914 with the onset of WWI. The war focused attention on the various national anthems being played in the warring countries and 1914 also marked the 100th anniversary of Key’s writing The Star-Spangled Banner.
To that point, The Star-Spangled Banner was rarely played at sporting events. A search of a historical newspaper database found only three mentions of The Star-Spangled Banner being played at sporting events in 1915 and 1916. The reports tell us the anthem was played when President Wilson stood up in the ninth inning to leave a 1915 World Series game and again at halftime of the 1915 Army-Navy football game when Wilson rose from his seat among Navy rooters to shift to a spot among the Army rooters. (Hail to the Chief pre-dated the Civil War, but it announces the President’s entrance into a room or location, so the Chief’s movements in a stadium did justify its playing.) The anthem also played on Opening Day of the 1916 baseball season in Washington when Wilson attended to throw out the first pitch.
With war clouds looming in March 1917, T. L. Huston, the New York Yankees co-owner and veteran of the Spanish-American War, proposed that major league teams practice and perform military drills during the season so the players would be prepared for war if and when they were called. The idea was adopted by all eight American League teams and two National League teams. As the story is told in Jim Leeke’s, From the Dugouts to the Trenches: Baseball During the Great War, the teams drilled under the supervision of Army noncoms during spring training and the regular season. Opening Day saw the players march in formation during pre-game ceremonies, attired in their baseball uniforms and carrying baseball bats over their right shoulders rather than rifles. Their marching ended with a flag ceremony and the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner.
Today we would find it odd for news articles to report the playing of the anthem before a game, but playing the anthem was not the norm in 1917. It was new and fit the patriotic fervor sweeping the country after America entered the war, so newspaper reports for each of six 1917 World Series games informed readers of the anthem being played before the game. The ritual of playing the anthem before games slowly leaked over to football and, as I wrote in Fields of Friendly Strife, the first identified instance of The Star-Spangled Banner being played before a football game was the November 3, 1917 contest between the Mare Island Marines and the University of Oregon. A more recent search showed The Star-Spangled Banner also preceded the Wisconsin-Minnesota game on the same day, so both locations earn the distinction of being the first in the football world.
The Mare Island Marines were invited to play in the 1918 Rose Bowl a few weeks later to face the Army’s Camp Lewis team. The Tournament of Roses selected “Patriots’ Day” as the theme for that year’s events and parade was filled by all manner of patriotic floats. Similarly, The Star-Spangled Banner preceded the game as part of an on-field ceremony graced by a young woman dressed as the Goddess of Liberty who was handed American flags by Marine Corps and Army officers.
After WWI, the national anthem was generally played only before significant games such as baseball’s Opening Day and World Series games, and we know it was played before at least half the Rose Bowls during the 1920s, but the regular playing of the anthem before sporting events did not take hold until WWII. As in WWI, patriotism was pronounced during WWII and advances in stadium sound systems allowed solo artists or recorded renditions of the anthem to substitute for live bands, which were costly to hire for games in which military or school bands were not already present. From that point on, the playing of the national anthem became a standard element of sporting events across the country.
Thus, the national anthem’s initial link to sporting events and its transition to ritual status came at times of war, the ultimate instances of us versus them. The current protests tied to the national anthem are threatening and emotion-filled because the protesters question our notions about us. Their challenge to the symbol is a question of whether they are fully included in the collective us. While the symbolism of the protest caught the nation’s attention, it also obscured the question being asked and caused some to reject the underlying question. Let’s hope we can get past the symbolism and have real conversations about what it means to be us.
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