The NBA put a quick stop to Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban’s attempt to end the singing of the national anthem before home games. The anthem was sung — and cheered — before last night’s tipoff against Atlanta in the American Airlines Center.
But many people say the short-lived drama is a microcosm of their experience in a culture that is increasingly hostile to their beliefs.
“The Mark Cuban national anthem story is not a sports story. It’s part of a much larger campaign against conservative values,” financial analyst and Fox News news host Charles V. Payne wrote on Twitter.
Payne grouped the anthem in a cornucopia of issues that include the U.S. flag, religion and guns, saying they generate political attacks “designed to demonize the brand.”
“Conservatives better fight back soon,” he concluded.
The starred-and-striped conservative “brand” is draped with red, white and blue, and former President Donald J. Trump used it effectively, so much so that Americans not aligned with Trump are struggling to reclaim the symbols and the use of the word “patriot.”
A recent analysis of people who voted for Trump in 2020 found that patriotic sentiment was a unifying force that drove people to support Trump even if they had voted for Barack Obama in 2012. And oversized American flags and red caps became a controversial part of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” brand.
The anthem, however, became a political issue because of an athlete, not a politician. And despite long-standing complaints about how difficult it is for ordinary people to sing, for many Americans, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a beloved and reliably inspiring tradition that signals the start of diverse sporting events, from the Super Bowl to small-town 5K races, and is even a part of Super Bowl betting.
Here’s a look at how a poem scribbled by an attorney in 1814 came to be part of America’s culture war in 2021, and what its future might be.
‘Bigger than football’
In the same week that Cuban said the anthem would no longer be played at Mavericks games, an article in People magazine described Sunday’s Super Bowl performance by Jazmine Sullivan and Erick Church as “incredible” and “unifying.”
Months earlier, however, the Mavericks owner had decided to drop the song before games.
According to Tim Cato of The Athletic, who broke the story, the anthem had not been played at any of the games at American Airlines Center in Dallas this season, and no announcement had been made. When asked about it, Cuban confirmed to The Athletic that he had made the decision, declining to say anything else.
Cuban later described the decision as something of a social experiment he had purposefully designed.
“We have no problem with playing it. But we do want these very important conversations to continue,” he told a reporter for The Dallas Morning News.
But the absence of the anthem had gone unnoticed for weeks, and in fact, the song was not always a pregame ritual in Dallas.
According to The New York Times, “God Bless America” had been sung before games for 16 years under owner Donald Carter. The national anthem replaced it when Ross Perot Jr. bought the team in 1996, and “The Star-Spangled Banner” continued after Cuban acquired the team in 2000, even as controversy erupted over former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision in 2016 to protest police brutality and racism by sitting, then later kneeling, during the anthem instead of standing with his team.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way,” Kaepernick said to reporters after his initially quiet protest got attention.
Kaepernick, who has not been able to find work in the NFL since opting out of his 49ers contract in 2017, has since found greater sympathy for his action, as the 2020 death of George Floyd energized the the Black Lives Matter movement. The Mavericks knelt as a team during the anthem last year, even as some conservatives said they found the action offensive.
“The minute one player kneels during the anthem, I am out,” Dallas radio host Mark Davis tweeted in July, to which Cuban tersely replied, “Bye.”
He later added, “The National Anthem Police in this country are out of control.”
Francis Scott Key had a day job as a Maryland attorney, but he also had a window seat to history as he watched the British Navy bombard Fort McHenry in 1814 from Baltimore Harbor. (He was on a ship at the time, having been stuck there after helping to negotiate the release of a captured civilian, according to History.com.)
Inspired by the sight of the American flag waving over the fort and absent suitable paper, he wrote the start of a poem that would be called “Defence of Fort M’Henry” on the back of an envelope. When completed, the poem was published in local newspapers and eventually set to the tune of an English drinking song. As much as it could in the 1800s, the song went viral, and by the end of the century, the U.S. military was performing it during ceremonies involving the flag, and President Woodrow Wilson declared it the national anthem in 1916 by executive order. (Congress followed up with its own proclamation in 1931.)
In an age when the sins of ancestors are under scrutiny, composer Key is a candidate for cancellation.
“Though his celebrated anthem proclaimed the United States ‘the land of the free,’ Key was in fact a slaveholder from an old Maryland plantation family, and as a U.S. attorney argued several prominent cases against the abolitionist movement. He did speak out against the cruelties of the institution of slavery, but did not see abolition as the solution,” according to History.com, which is owned by A+E Networks.
Public sentiment toward the anthem, however, is still so strong that the NBA quickly moved to counter Cuban’s decision, issuing a statement saying that playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” is not optional and that all teams must comply. The Mavericks quickly agreed, ending that singular controversy, but adding another chapter in a multi-faceted debate that will continue.
A hardened divide
Is the anthem, like the flag, an unnecessary point of contention, as NFL Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe recently said?
Or is controversy over the flag a deep and sinister sign that America is unraveling at the seams? Many conservatives fear the latter.
.@ShannonSharpe on Mark Cuban not playing the national anthem before Mavericks home games:— UNDISPUTED (@undisputed) February 10, 2021
"I'm fine with the decision. We have to stop with this notion that gestures and symbols are a sign of patriotism. Actions and deeds make you a patriot. Sporting events will be just fine." pic.twitter.com/JxPegPTa3n
For now, the Mavericks story appears to have hardened the divide between Americans who cherish the anthem and those who say it does not represent them.
The Republican lieutenant governor of Texas even filed a bill that would require the national anthem to be played at all events that receive public funding.
To Washington Post sports columnist Barry Svrluga, that would defeat the purpose, as he says the anthem already suffers from overexposure. “Hearing it so often — 162 times in a baseball season, half that in basketball or hockey — makes each version less special. At most ballparks and arenas, there’s a hot dog-buying, finding-my-seat murmur beneath the song,” Svrluga wrote.
Though Svrluga finds the singing of the anthem somewhat silly and agrees with Cuban that both perspectives — pro and con — should be heard, he sees that the anthem could also settle into a space where it is a unifier.
The Super Bowl performance of the anthem, after all, brought together a country singer (Eric Church) and a rhythm and blues artist (Jazmine Sullivan) that was widely praised independent of the national enthusiasm for the sign-language interpretation by Warren “WAWA” Snipe.
And earlier this year, when a Black professional opera singer, Emmanuel Henreid, joined with a white Portland State University student, Madisen Hallberg, in an impromptu duet of the national anthem, it was described on NPR as a “magical moment.”
Could more moments like that lift the anthem from the hand-to-Twitter combat of the culture wars?
Svrluga says it’s reasonable to debate whether a polarizing song should be played in a deeply polarized society.
But, he added, “At a time when we need whatever unity we can find and sports might be one place to find it, the anthem could be a two-minute span when we agree that we’re all Americans, that we should be together rather than separate. It could remind us that — not very long ago — we had more in common than we did not. It’s a nice way to think, at least.”