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Anthems be damned, sports arenas are not the forum for political debate

Cathal Kelly

I once covered a Super Bowl from a room below the stadium where the game was being played.

The story of how we ended up there could be a mini-series, but I’ll skip to the end. I arrive in the room – frantic, badly bruised and sweating like an animal – as things are kicking off. As I take a seat, the national anthem starts.

The room is crowded, loud and banked by screens. Nearly everyone else in there is a TV reporter. They’ve finished hours of pre-game drudgery. Now they’re on break until halftime. They don’t register The Star-Spangled Banner. None of them gets up. No one stops talking.

Muscle memory draws me out of my chair. I stand there at attention for however long it takes. When I sit back down, a huge guy in a trucker cap and with a handlebar moustache runs – actually runs, ducking around people as he does so – over to stand in front of me. He doesn’t look like a TV reporter.

With a great flourish, he slaps a piece of ID down on the table. I lean over to read it. It is his U.S. Marine Corps ID card.

He waits until I look back up and says in a very Marine Corps kind of voice, “I want to congratulate you, sir.”

This sounds bad.

“I want to congratulate you …” – and here his already stentorian delivery jumps to a full-on, parade-ground scream – “… ON BEING THE ONLY GODDAMNED PATRIOT IN THIS ENTIRE ROOM.”

All the beautiful people freeze. You can see on all their faces what they are thinking in that instant: ‘Active shooter.’

A Canadian colleague sitting beside me puts a hand on my shoulder and says, “Mister, you got that one right. This guy right here is the proudest American I know.”


This seems to mollify the Marine. He salutes me – right hand to God – and goes back to wherever he was. I didn’t want to watch him go for fear he’d take that as an invitation to further conversation. It was about the 15th weirdest thing that happened to me at that Super Bowl.

Until that moment, I was agnostic about national anthems at sporting events. Since then, I am a committed national-anthem dissenter.

Outside an Olympics, there is nothing more insipid than playing a national anthem at sports. What has a baseball game to do with the country in which it is played?

You might as well play the national anthem before the opening of a breakfast buffet. In fact, the breakfast buffet would be more apt since every sensible citizen of this great nation loves breakfast, but only a minority love baseball.

When the modern sports protest movement got going, of course it was the anthem that on-field activists targeted. Only in the profane context of sports could something so meaningless suddenly seem so sacred. Seeing it defiled drove people batty. Driving people batty is top-drawer activism.

You didn’t need to be a genius to figure out how to counteract all the kneelers, sitters and guys who stayed in the locker room – get rid of the anthems.

What they did instead was pad the anthem with lots of other stuff that has nothing to with what sports is really about – capitalism.

Now you’ve got both anthems, plus a land acknowledgment, plus a minute’s silence for whatever horrible thing has just happened in the world, plus an instruction from Corporation X to think deeply about this or that cause or month of the year or what have you.

Eventually, the billionaires who own the teams will start passing around a basket so that people who’ve already shelled out a week’s salary for their ticket can give more if they feel like. No pressure, though.

This is what happens when people stop going to houses of worship. Whatever place they go to instead becomes the new church.

The era of sports’ Anthem Wars – roughly 2016-21 – ended in an undeclared truce. Everybody on both sides ran out of steam. The activists tired of talking about it, and the blowback was enough to give cover to the vast majority of players who’d never been interested in activism in the first place.

The anthem, however silly and out of place, went back to being that moment where you have to remember to take off your hat.

But now here comes San Francisco Giants manager Bob Melvin.

Melvin just started managing the Giants, who were bad last year. Bad year plus new manager equals culture change. Melvin’s version of this – everybody needs to be out of the dugout and standing at attention for the anthem. Nobody can be backstage taking cuts or getting treatment.

“It has nothing to do with whatever happened in the past or whatever,” Melvin told USA Today about his new rule.

What he presumably means by “the past” is his predecessor in the San Francisco job, Gabe Kapler. Kapler was the first MLB manager to kneel during the anthem.

So here we go again. Make sure to get on the right side of history, people. But first, make sure to get your order in for dollar-foot-long day. Revolution is hungry business.

Since it’s a U.S. election year, maybe this was bound to happen. The first time the anthem became a flashpoint, Donald Trump had just begun to dominate the continental conversation. Now that he’s back, everything old is new again. It’s time to start yelling at each other over the dumbest stuff in lieu of discussing anything important.

Once again, the solution is simple. Ditch the anthems. Ditch the whole pre-game routine.

If people want to discuss important topics – and they should want that – sports is a forum ill-suited to it.

It is an unserious place, filled with unserious people, reducing complex topics to slogans. It is an environment designed to thwart give and take, instead forcing people to choose a team to root for uncritically. It is a recipe for misunderstanding.

All the things that make sports fun make politics at sports more and more stupid. But as long as everyone’s willing to pay top dollar, the people running the arena will find ways to give you something to yell about.

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  • Catman changed the title to Cathal Kelly's Always a Good Read.

Hallelujah! I've been on the "Get rid of National Anthems" train for more years than I care to remember. I'll go one step further: let's get rid of the military presence before every game (mostly in US arenas). Hockey has nothing to do with the military or with politics. Nothing.

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Sports has united (and divided) different groups of people since the Greeks and Romans supported different chariots/gladiators.  You can't separate politics from the sports - even a club/team that tries to "ban" any political expression is a political statement in and of itself.  If a team gets rid of Pride Night, is that not a political statement?  Or God forbid.... if a team decides to get rid of national anthems, is that not a statement either?


Kelly unwisely uses baseball as an example.  Baseball has such a long and complicated history, especially when it comes to segregation.  When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, what was that?  Not politics?


He also touches on the Olympics but fails to elaborate any further.  No Canadian hockey fan would tell me that losing to our rival Americans/Russians is the same as losing to... Sweden.  The way the average Canadian thinks about hockey is tightly ingrained to our own national identity (ie. the anti-American sentiment or the Cold War ideology).  Should we hate the American/Russian hockey teams more?  Probably not, but how are we gonna get rid of that?

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