Week three of the National Football League was the most controversial yet, as a number of NFL players including three full teams chose to either kneel, lock arms, or remain in their locker rooms during the singing of the National Anthem. These protests were in response to President Trump’s tweets from the previous week in which he referred to players who kneel during the anthem as “sons of b——” and called for NFL owners to fire any player who disrespects the flag and our country.
The recent controversy over the national anthem started in the 2016 preseason when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to take a knee during the singing of the anthem. Kaepernick sought to protest racial discrimination and his actions started a movement in the NFL. Now, whole teams, including owners, are kneeling and using their platforms to bring light to the situation.
Because there is such a big focus on the national anthem and its role in sporting events, taking a closer look at the anthem’s sporting history is essential.
Although the “Star Spangled Banner” has only been our national anthem since 1933, its ties to sporting events date back to 1862. According to the Official Baseball Historian, John Thorn, the first time the infamous song was played at a sporting event was during a baseball game in William Cammeyer’s Union Grounds Park in Brooklyn on May 15, 1862. At the time, the nation was divided by civil war and a band played “The Star Spangled Banner” in an effort to unite the crowd.
According to Thorn, the song was played during the seventh-inning stretch of the opening game of the 1918 World Series when World War I was in full swing, but it wasn’t until World War II that it started being played before every game. In a New York Times article written by Jim Benagh, he states that Yankees president Ed Barrow ordered that the “Star Spangled Banner” be played before all games at the stadium. Other teams followed and the playing of the national anthem before sporting events became universal in 1942.
Even with this tradition in baseball, there were some athletes who did not feel it was right to stand for the anthem. In his 1972 autobiography, I Never Had It Made, Jackie Robinson wrote, “As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world.” Negative feelings towards the flag and thoughts on racial discrimination are not new in sports.
In the NFL, the singing of the anthem before games has been going on for years, however it wasn’t until 2009 that players in primetime games would be out on the field to hear the anthem being sang. Even so, players are not required to be on the field and contrary to popular belief, there is no rule related to this issue.
Documents have been circulating on social media in which versions of the NFL rulebook stated that before every NFL game, “players must be on the sidelines for the National Anthem, standing, facing the flag, helmets in left hands.” According to politifact.com, this language does not appear in the NFL rulebook but rather in a separate document—the NFL Game Operations Manual—which is distributed by the league to all of its member teams.
There are no consequences if players don’t follow what the manual says. NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told SportsCenter that “players are strongly encouraged, but not required to stand during the national anthem.”
Like week three, week four of the NFL season consisted of protests from players and teams. The Indianapolis Colts released a statement on Twitter after their game on Sunday explaining why they chose to protest.
“Those of us who kneeled did not intend to disrespect our flag, our National Anthem, or those who serve our country…But as NFL players, we have a platform…we have a responsibility to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.”
No matter what feelings people have on the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” before sporting events, it has been a tradition in sports long before it was even our country’s anthem and will continuously be a part of the pregame experience, despite protests on what the anthem stands for.