[This is the first post in the series, you can read the introduction here.]
The over-the-top militaristic parades put on by nations like North Korea and China broadcasted on their state-run television networks have always struck me as oddly impressive. You can’t help but be impressed by the thousands of soldiers lined up in perfect formations and surrounded by the heavy militaristic symbols of flags, tanks, and warplanes. The United States has its own pomp and circumstance surrounding Presidential Inaugurations and Fourth of July celebrations, but even they tend to lack the military luster of the North Korean parades. There is, however, one venue in American society that does rival the militaristic and patriotic hype of these other counties – sports.
My family has attended every Cleveland Indians Opening Day game for over a decade. Patriotism tends to be on steroids for these games. There’s always a flag so large it nearly covers the entire field, red, white, and blue balloons are released, fireworks are shot off, and the military provides a deafening flyover by their war machines. The climax of the pregame pomp is when a local celebrity comes out to sing the national anthem. For those of us who have grown up in the United States over the last 50 years, this is our reality in sports. It is difficult for us to know where patriotism ends and sports begins. The poster child for the prominent connection between “The Star Spangled Banner” and sports is Whitney Houston’s rendition from the Super Bowl in 1991 (her version of the anthem has been a Top 20 hit twice – after that Super Bowl and again after September 11, 2001). It may be difficult for us to imagine a sporting event without the anthem, but how many people know the actual origin of the practice?
Luke Cyphers and Ethan Trex describe the pivotal role that the national anthem played in the 1918 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox (fourteen years before the anthem was officially adopted by the United States government). You can read the interesting article in full here, but I’ll provide a short synopsis. In a game that was moved across town from the Cubs home field (Weegham Park) to Comiskey Field to accommodate an expected large crowd (Comiskey had double the capacity of Weegham Park) only 19,000 people showed up. Unfortunately, the day before Game One the Chicago Federal Building was bombed, killing four and injuring 30. This added to an already-dismal atmosphere across the country as the nation was already entrenched in World War I. Needless to say, interest in the World Series was an immediate casualty.
On the diamond, Babe Ruth pitched the Red Sox to a 1-0 shutout win over the Cubs in front of a crowd that the Tribune described as “perhaps the quietest on record.” The exception was when the military band played “The Star Spangled Banner.” The scene was described the following day in the New York Times leading, not with a description of the game itself, but the patriotic outbursts during the seventh inning: “First the song was taken up by a few, then others joined, and when the final notes came, a great volume of melody rolled across the field. It was at the very end that the onlookers exploded into thunderous applause and rent the air with a cheer that marked the highest point of the day’s enthusiasm.” The spectacle caught on and each night the Cubs ramped up the pageantry, only to be outdone when the Series moved to Boston. At Fenway Park, the anthem was moved from the seventh inning to before the game. As Cyphers and Tex conclude: “Other major league teams noticed the popular reaction to “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 1918, and over the next decade it became standard for World Series and holiday games. In subsequent years, through subsequent wars, it grew into the daily institution we know today.”
Today, it seems unusual to watch a sporting event at any level (with the exception of local, neighborhood recreation leagues) without the preemptive playing of the national anthem. It has become a practice so widely entrenched in sporting culture in the United States that any deviance from it is worthy of headline news. For example, when the small Mennonite college in Indiana, Goshen College, considered breaking from its pacifist-inspired tradition of not playing the anthem, it was covered by the New York Times.
Considering the fact that Major League Baseball maintained its color barrier until Jackie Robinson played in his first game 28 years later in 1946, it is safe to say this practice originated almost exclusively under the auspices of White America’s sports experience. We should not be surprised then, to learn that the playing of the national anthem has often provided a platform for protests by African Americans. Tommie Smith and John Carlos provided what, historically, has been the most prominent racially-motivated protest during the anthem when they raised their closed, gloved fist during a medals ceremony in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico. Smith and Carlos provided a most dramatic image of protest (they were, by the way, subsequently kicked off the team and sent back to the United States), but there have been many others as highlighted in an article in Monday’s New York Times.
Many people seem to assume the playing of the national anthem before sporting events is some kind of official legislative decree by the United State government when it is instead a longstanding, albeit it unofficial, tradition. In sports, which demand conformity (conformity to team rules, team uniforms, and the rules of the game), the playing of the national anthem provides a unique opportunity for athletes to make contrarian statements. This most recent iteration of protest was prompted by Colin Kaepernick during last NFL preseason. (Read the response of his fellow protestor Eric Reid here.) What seems to be often overlooked is that Kaepernick and Reid (as well as many others) have been motivated to conduct their protest because of their Christian faith. In the next post, I’ll examine the significance of symbols and the way that empires utilize symbols to indoctrinate and control their people. The national anthem is a prominent symbol, along with flags and war machines, and the United States government has a vested interest its propagandizing power. All of this should be more unsettling to Christians than we often realize.
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