How Sports Met 'The Star-Spangled Banner' "The Star-Spangled Banner" has been played at major sporting events as far back as the Civil War, even before it was officially named the national anthem. How and why did the tradition stick?
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How Sports Met 'The Star-Spangled Banner'

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How Sports Met 'The Star-Spangled Banner'

How Sports Met 'The Star-Spangled Banner'

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Today is one of the biggest dates on the American sports calendar - the start of a new NFL regular season. The Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles are hosting the Atlanta Falcons, and the moment calls for music.


CORNISH: Since 2016, the national anthem at football games has been a political flashpoint and a symbol of division in the country. But it's merely the latest chapter in a more than 150-year connection between "The Star-Spangled Banner" and sports. As part of our series American Anthem, NPR's Tom Goldman reports on a history that's both powerful and controversial.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Different sports, different pre-game moments from the amped-up NFL...


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Here come your Los Angeles Chargers.

GOLDMAN: ...To a prayer at the rodeo...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Watch over the cowboys, the cowgirls. Please watch over our livestock.

GOLDMAN: ...To the Little League pledge.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE #1: I will play fair...

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE #2: I will play fair...

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE #1: ...And strive to win.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE #2: ...And strive to win.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE #1: But win or lose...

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE #2: But win or lose...

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE #1: ...I will always do my best.

GOLDMAN: Different moments, but there's one ritual they all share.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing) Oh, say, can you see...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Singing) By the dawn's early light what so...


MCKENNA HOWARD: (Singing) What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming, whose...

GOLDMAN: That last singer, 16-year-old McKenna Howard, performed at the recent Little League Softball World Series in Portland, Ore. In the stands, her mom, Amy, listened closely. Amy Howard is a music and voice teacher from Wheelersburg, Ohio, who ends her classes with the national anthem. She has sung it at sporting events, but she's never thought about why.

AMY HOWARD: I like that we do it. It's good to stop and pause and remember why we are free to do what we're free to do.

GOLDMAN: Pausing for patriotism before the game begins - that's been a tradition forever it seems. Mark Clague is one of the few who can identify when forever began.

MARK CLAGUE: May 15, 1862, in Brooklyn, N.Y.

GOLDMAN: University of Michigan musicology professor Mark Clague has spent a lot of his adult life learning everything he can about "The Star-Spangled Banner." It was born in 1814 when Francis Scott Key put words to a well-known melody. Forty-eight years later on that May day in Brooklyn, Clague says the song first met up with sports at the dedication of a new baseball field.

CLAGUE: When you have live music in 1862 during the Civil War, you're going to play patriotic songs. And so they play "The Star-Spangled Banner" sort of coincidentally. It's not part of a ritual. It's not played to start the game.

GOLDMAN: It would take another 50-plus years and another war for the anthem to become even more intertwined with sports.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Now, here's Ruth as a Red Sox pitcher. He broke in as a hurler in 1914.

GOLDMAN: In the 1918 World Series, Babe Ruth's Boston Red Sox were playing the Cubs in Chicago. The crowd was flat. The Cubs weren't playing well. The weather was crummy. And on a much more significant level, World War I still raged. During the seventh-inning stretch, the band, says Clague, struck up the anthem.

CLAGUE: And one of the players on the field who's in the Navy sort of snaps to attention.

SHERYL KASKOWITZ: I've even read some accounts where players marched military style with their bats over their shoulders.

GOLDMAN: Researcher Sheryl Kaskowitz has written about patriotic anthems.

KASKOWITZ: It really was seen as an important acknowledgement of the war.

CLAGUE: And the crowd responds. And, you know, it gets written up in the newspaper as this amazing moment that sort of brings the stadium back to life.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: As usual at all World Series games, the crowd is standing up now for "The Star-Spangled Banner."

GOLDMAN: By the time this anthem played at the 1939 World Series, the song was a regular occurrence not just at baseball but hockey and football games as well. Its spread was helped along in the 1920s by the increased use of public address systems and fueled by surging patriotism in the runup to the U.S. entering World War II. It became the country's official anthem in 1931 and a natural fit at sporting events with its celebration of heroism and the musical athleticism needed to belt out the song's highs and lows.


WHITNEY HOUSTON: (Singing) And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave...

GOLDMAN: As the song spread post-World War II, it became something people expected and insisted upon with the exception of pacifists who hated the war-like lyrics. Athletic arenas became stages for memorable renditions from Whitney Houston at the 1991 Super Bowl to Marvin Gaye at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game.


MARVIN GAYE: (Singing) The land of the free and the home of the, home of the brave.


HARRY EDWARDS: For this to be indeed the land of the free and the home of the brave, we would have to have arrived at that state of perfection that does not at this point exist.

GOLDMAN: Of course the anthem has been a battleground for dissent, too. And Dr. Harry Edwards has been on those front lines for 50 years as an athlete, sociology professor and active participant in the civil rights movement. His experience spans the 1968 protests during the anthem by Olympic medal winners John Carlos and Tommie Smith to his current roles as a sports consultant to the NFL and adviser to Colin Kaepernick, who started the NFL player demonstrations during the anthem in 2016. The anthem, Edwards says, always has been a powerful platform for protest.

EDWARDS: The national anthem is about America. It is symbolic of that aspiration for e pluribus unum, one out of the many. So the anthem becomes a forum to demonstrate against the contradictions to those professed aspirations.

GOLDMAN: The nation has wrestled with what these sports protests mean - disloyalty to the flag, the military, the country or a true expression of freedom and hope that the United States can be better. This is where anthem expert Mark Clague reminds us of all things about punctuation. Francis Scott Key ended "The Star-Spangled Banner's" first and most famous verse, or the land of the free and the home of the brave, with a question mark.

CLAGUE: It's not an exclamation mark. It's not a period. It's not an ending. It's a question that needs an answer.

GOLDMAN: Our reply, he says, to the song, to the protests, tells us a lot about who we are, what it means to love a country and to be united. Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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