HERRIMAN — It may seem as American as apple pie or Uncle Sam, but there was once a time when sports and the national anthem didn’t walk hand-in-hand through its own slice of Americana.
The union of the two, in fact, is more recent than not.
So, is it time to reverse the trend — to pull the plug on the pre-game anthem singers and the pledge to the flag that hovers over the "land of the free and the home of the brave"?
The National Women’s Soccer League may have taken a small step toward that reality when it announced Monday afternoon that players would no longer be required to remain on the field during the anthem.
Players will have a choice to either remain in the locker room during the playing of the anthem or be on the field to freely express themselves as they see fit. No player will be forced to do anything during the pre-game ceremony.
The hymn written by Francis Scott Key will still play before each match of the NWSL Challenge Cup at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman. But after most of its players chose to kneel during the anthem, in addition to a ceremonial knee taken prior to kickoff in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and to protest police brutality, NWSL officials gave their players a chance to stay in the locker room during the pre-game spot.
"We began this tournament with several important goals," NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird said in a statement from league headquarters. "Develop a safe environment for the continuation of sport. Create an innovative competition to showcase the vitality of women’s soccer. Collaborate with our players association and develop a genuine partnership. Raise revenue to fund player compensation. And support and empower players to use their platform to make the world a better place.
"And so, we’re going to continue to play the national anthem, but with even more flexibility, and support each player’s right to express their individual views, or not.
"The NWSL stands behind every player, official and staff member. Kneel on the field. Stand with your hand over your heart. Honor your feelings in the privacy of the locker room or at midfield.
"The NWSL is a league that was built on diversity and courage, and those principles will continue to drive us forward."
The protests surrounding the playing of the anthem have little to do with the “Star Spangled Banner”; those who have taken a knee have all along.
In essence, it's not the anthem itself that matters; it's that Black lives do, and the same freedoms promised in the lyrics of the hymn have not applied to all Americans equally, many protesters have argued.
It's never been about the "Star-Spangled Banner" or the lyrics of Key.
To that effect, when the Royals took the field Tuesday morning for their opening match of the NWSL Challenge Cup, each player on the team kneeled in collective unity, along with head coach Craig Harrington and his assistants. It wasn't just the Starting XI on the field, either.
"I think that the focus should really be on not whether or not people are standing or kneeling — but more so the movement, in general," Utah Royals defender Elizabeth Ball said. "I think that this league is in support of the movement, and I think that people on social media are going to talk, no matter what the situation is. As long as we’re sticking to what we’re doing, I think the spotlight shouldn’t be on people who stand or do not stand."
Soccer’s pivotal moment
The amendment was addressed less than 48 hours after Chicago Red Stars and U.S. women’s national team defender Julie Ertz, who is white, consoled teammate Casey Short, who is Black, after the latter was visibly emotional during the playing of the anthem, while most of her teammates took a knee around her.
The scene went viral on social media and has been used heavily by the league office, even as a 30-second introduction to the NWSL-produced highlight package of Washington’s 2-1 win over Chicago – an introduction that was later removed from the league’s official YouTube page after some suggested it could be exploitative.
"I have covered this league for five years," CBS play-by-play man Mike Watts said on the broadcast. "I don’t think there has been a more striking, singular image than Casey Short and Julie Ertz in that moment."
Some kneeled, some stood, but all appeared united in voice and message. Even those who did not kneel linked arms with their teammates, placed hands on shoulders, or otherwise attempted to symbolize that they were together.
That the first professional team sport to return from the hiatus, because of the coronavirus pandemic, to use the platform of the first women’s soccer match to air on network television to make such a statement should not be discounted, either.
"We are incredibly proud of our players for being the first major sports league to play in the U.S. and doing so in a safe way, while also bringing attention to the fight for racial justice," reads a joint statement from the NWSL Players’ Association.
“The Players are unified in this statement. Whether a player chooses to kneel or stand during the national anthem is a personal decision, and is not indicative of whether they support BLM or their teammates. The Players Association supports both making a clear statement that Black Lives Matter and each player making a personal decision around whether to stand or kneel during the national anthem. We ask that our supporters and media respect each player’s right to handle these moments in the way that they choose and to know that our players are united against racism and in support of one another."
History of the anthem and sports
Prior to 1918, moments like that almost never happened. Before the end of World War I, it was incredibly rare for the anthem to be played at professional club sporting events.
A few scattered appearances of the national anthem in sports can be traced back to the mid-19th century. But it was the 1918 World Series that pushed the two toward their current union.
Babe Ruth was playing for Boston when the Red Sox faced the Chicago Cubs for the championship. In a game when the home crowd came out flat, the Cubs decided to spice up the traditional seventh-inning stretch with "The Star-Spangled Banner" — at the time, not the official anthem of the United States, but a revered patriotic hymn of the republic, no less.
One of the Sox was Fred Thomas, a grandson of immigrants and a Navy veteran. The stories report that when Thomas heard the anthem, he "just sort of snaps to attention," according to NPR, and the crowd responded with enthusiasm.
Newspaper reports hailed the moment as pivotal to the series, and “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played at the next game and subsequently for the remainder of the series.
The song spread to other sports, was fueled by NFL commissioner Elmer Layden’s adoption of the hymn, and by the time the United States recognized it as the official national anthem in 1931, the marriage was complete, according to History.com.
The anthem in sports even survived an investigation by former Arizona Republican Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain in 2015 that decried hefty contracts like a $6.8 million deal between the Pentagon and pro sports leagues for patriotic displays during games.
Several leagues — most notably the NFL — have since called on teams to stop taking money for patriotic salutes.
"Americans across the country should be deeply disappointed that many of the ceremonies honoring troops at professional sporting events are not actually being conducted out of a sense of patriotism, but for profit in the form of millions in taxpayer dollars going from the Department of Defense to wealthy pro sports franchises," said McCain, a Vietnam War veteran, in a statement at the time. "Fans should have confidence that their hometown heroes are being honored because of their honorable military service, not as a marketing ploy."
Many fans didn’t think much of the playing of the anthem for decades afterward as it became ingrained in the pageantry and tradition of American sports. In several sports — most notably the NHL — both the American and Canadian anthems are played prior to games featuring teams from both sides of the border, cementing the tradition even deeper.
In 2016, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the anthem while playing for the San Francisco 49ers. Kaepernick said he wasn’t protesting the hymn, but what it stood for — that the liberties and freedoms espoused by American politics are not afforded equally to all races, especially Black men and women in America.
Kaepernick hasn’t played since the end of the 2016 season, but he’s continued to be an activist for social justice, with Netflix announcing this week a documentary about his high school years by acclaimed filmmaker Ava DuVernay.
In at least one sport, the anthem will take a temporary respite. Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber said his league would not play the national anthem before every match of its MLS is Back tournament that kicks off next month in Orlando.
"There’s not going to be any fans in the stands, so we didn’t see that it would be appropriate," he told reporters recently. "And I feel today no different than I felt then, which is if a player is looking to express their right to kneel during the national anthem, they should have the right to do so. I would hope that they would stand, but if they opt not to, that’s their prerogative and we will support that."
Still, Kaepernick's voice carries on. Megan Rapinoe brought the movement — and the knee — to the NWSL as a member of the then-Seattle Reign; and by 2020, several players have joined her stance in protesting inequality in the country.
The movement for Black lives, for racial equality, against police brutality has sparked conversations across America — from living rooms to classrooms to locker rooms, including inside the Royals’ own confines.
Those conversations are a reasonable response to a movement to which Kaepernick chose to draw attention — one that had nothing to do with the anthem itself.
"It’s a hard conversation because it is so complex," Utah forward Brittany Ratcliffe said. "I think as a team, we’ve talked about it; we had discussions before the anthem was an issue — even in quarantine, when George Floyd (was killed in Minneapolis), several of us got together to talk about it.
"These conversations are constantly ongoing. I think the most important thing is that you are able to have these difficult conversations with your teammates. They know where you stand, and you know where they stand."
In the end, those conversations will continue — with or without the national anthem played before every game.
"I think this group of women is incredible, and we are all extremely supportive of each other," Ball said. "Everybody wants to learn, to be a part of change. I think that’s incredible, and I think it is allowing for change.
"I don’t think we would’ve had these conversations if these weren’t the circumstances, and I think it’s incredibly powerful that this league, as a whole, is being so outward about their feelings toward this movement. It makes me very happy, and I think I can speak for a lot of people when I say that."