Since World War II, the Star-Spangled Banner has been a fixture before nearly every sporting event in the U.S. In the NBA, the national anthem is a long-standing fixture. But at least one writer who just published a book about his experience while embedded with the Brooklyn Nets says the NBA should end the practice.
It is a hot-button topic for many Americans. The national anthem is one of many items appropriated by a significant portion of the population as honoring the military. Wide criticism confronted athletes over protesting social problems during the anthem. The practice goes back more than 50 years, at least.
Would the NBA be justified in ending the practice of playing the Star-Spangled Banner before games? Or would it create a firestorm the size of which would dwarf any previous blowback? Questions about the national anthem playing at sporting events have been asked since the racial justice protests of mid-2020.
The juxtaposition of symbolism and patriotism
To many in the U.S., displays of patriotism are rooted in symbols. The U.S. flag, the national anthem, thanking veterans for their service — all are viewed in many quarters as public declarations of one’s love for country.
But some turn those symbols into clothing and other accessories to make it loud and clear they are Americans. Contrary to what some believe, U.S. Code does not prohibit wearing the flag or portions of it as clothing. It prohibits explicitly using the flag or its elements as a costume. Flag patches on uniforms, such as for the military or police, are allowed.
At times, the NBA has put the U.S. flag on its uniforms to express support for a specific national cause. But others weaponize the flag and those symbols associated with it. Any person not sharing the same outward reverence is deemed unpatriotic and a threat with which to be dealt.
The simple truth is that the definition of America has never been a single specific thing. Instead, the idea of the American experiment has always been one to be interpreted on an individual level.
How does the playing of the national anthem before NBA games tie in with all of that?
In an op-ed published on the NBC News website, author Matt Sullivan suggests the NBA end playing the national anthem before games.
Sullivan’s point comes from the time he spent embedded with the Nets. He cites the routines of superstars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. Neither of them kneels nor shows any outward protest toward the national anthem. They can’t because they aren’t there. Irving and Durant made it a practice to go back to the locker room before the anthem.
Since high-profile players are ignoring it already, Sullivan reasons why shouldn’t the league abandon the practice? The national anthem sung at sporting events is limited to the first stanza. But there is some language in the third that is controversial. In the poem that led to the song, the use of the word “slave” and choosing to rhyme it with “grave” is chilling in the context of modern times. The poem’s author, Francis Scott Key, was a slave owner in his day. That further complicates the issue.
The NBA is in a difficult spot, however, as an entertainment business.
Can the NBA afford to alienate roughly half its potential fan base over the national anthem?
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban caused a stir, albeit a belated one, earlier this year. Cuban ordered the national anthem no longer played before games at American Airlines Center. Since it two months before anyone noticed, some of the outrage expressed in the wake of that discovery rings hollow.
But the symbolic patriotism runs deep in the U.S. The hashtag #GetWokeGoBroke became popular in some political circles due to the 2020 racial justice protests. Texas passed a state law requiring professional sports teams to play the anthem.
NBA executives find themselves having to walk a fine line. The league wants to supporting its players — at least 70 percent of whom identify as Black. But it also has to guard against alienating large segments of the population that are potential consumers. According to Sullivan, some players regretted not protesting but feared financial and employment repercussions.
The NBA has presented itself as a league sensitive to social issues. But silencing the national anthem is likely a bridge too far, even for the NBA.