Now that another NFL season is in full-swing, the controversy regarding the behavior of players during the playing of the National Anthem is back in the news. Surprisingly, the conversation about the controversy rarely leads us to a rather obvious question: Why do we sing the Anthem before NFL games? I am not interested in arguing that we should not sing the Anthem any more than I am interested in arguing that we should.
I don’t find the argument from tradition—the argument that we have “always” sung the anthem—compelling. I would argue, however, that exploring this cultural practice in context might help us as we consider the behavior of NFL players during the singing of the Anthem. The context I would like to explore compares NFL games to other private, ticketed, entertainments events.
An NFL game is open only to those who buy a ticket. In this way it is like other forms of entertainment such as concerts, plays, and movies. While we might have been able at one point to claim that the NFL game carried with it some civic significance—after all, in the past anyone with a television could watch many of the games free of charge—this rationale has all but disappeared.
Even those who watch the game on an electronic device have to pay directly for the experience. Yet unlike concerts, plays, and movies, we sing the Anthem at the start of the NFL game.
Some might continue to argue that the NFL game carries with it some civic connotations because the teams bear the name of their city or region and, therefore, can be a source of civic pride. Fans in San Diego have joined fans in a other cities in being reminded that while the team may bear the name of the host city, with rare exception it is owned by a private person and can be removed as a source of civic identification without regard to the wishes of its host city.
Even if we continue to claim that the team has a close association with its host city, we are left to consider why we neglect to sing the Anthem at other private entertainments that bear the city’s name such as the San Diego Opera or the San Diego Symphony.
We are left with these questions: How is the NFL game different from these other events where we don’t sing the Anthem? Does the game embody distinctive features that make it a greater source of civic pride than other events and calls for an expression of overt patriotism? Does the nature of the game itself call forth patriotic emotions? If it does, what aspects of the game are patriotic? Its competitiveness? Its war-like structure (it is a ground-acquisition game that relies on military metaphors such as “the blitz” and “the bomb”)? Its violence?
My sense is that, until we think more deeply about this distinctive cultural practice in context, we will not be able to talk with much sense about its meaning in our culture and the appropriate behavior of the players who must decide how to conduct themselves while the Anthem is played.
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