The NBA’s National Anthem Mandate: Another Political Ploy from Pro Sports

By: Ryan McMaken

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is under fire for neglecting to play the national anthem (i.e., “the Star-Spangled Banner”) at his team’s home games. According to NBC News: 

The anthem has not been played at any of the 13 preseason and regular season games played so far at American Airlines Center at the direction of Mavs owner Mark Cuban …

Cuban confirmed to The Athletic and ESPN that he had altered the pregame ritual, but declined to explain further.

In response, the NBA quickly issued an edict that all NBA tems must play the anthem before every game. 

Ridiculously, the Mavericks organization was forced to clarify that “the decision to not play the anthem before games wasn’t because the franchise lacks love for the United States.”

This is a song and dance we Americans should be accustomed to by now. During the early twentieth and late nineteenth centuries, Americans adopted a variety of new pro-government rituals designed to inculcate an ideological preference for political unity, uniformity, and obeisence to the regime. Most notable among these was the introduction of the “pledge of Allegiance,” written by a socialist, and designed to inculcate into Americans the idea that the United State was forever “indivisible.” (It was also part of a business scheme to sell American flags.) 

By the 1920s, the national anthem waqs growing in popularity, as well. 

This was all in contradiction to earlier nineteenth century values of Jacksonian republicanism which valued localism and a suspicion of national rituals. Jackson, for example, had refused to go along with the customary political declarations of days of prayer and “Thanksgiving.” The Jacksonian view was that Americans can manage their own cultural affairs at the local level without any need for quasi-religious national rituals of “unity.” 

Thanks to the Civil War and the First World War, though, local cultural autonomy gave way to new cultural expectations that Americans stand around pledging allegiance to the state or singing secular hymns extolling the wonders of “the land of the free.”  Any dissent from these “traditions” was to be condemned as acts of “hating America.”

This poliicization of pro sports continued to today, even if it has taken a bit of a leftwing turn in recent years. 

The Rise of the Sports-Anthem Connection

The fact that participation in these rituals at sports games has become almost mandatory—at the risk of being punched in the nose by some red-faced “patriot”—would have struck most nineteenth-century Americans as rather odd. 

Indeed, the connection between the national anthem and professional sports games appears to have not begun until the end of the First World War. Before the First World War, playing the national anthem or sporting events was quite rare. No one expected it to be done, and hiring a band was expensive. 

According to, the most conspicuous early use of the national anthem was at game 1 of the 1918 World Series during World War I. Unexpectedly, during the seventh-inning stretch, a military band played the national anthem in an effort to liven up a reportedly surly and war-wearied group of spectators.

Use of the anthem spread from there. The anthem’s use expanded even more during the Second World War, as Matt Soniak notes: 

During World War II, baseball games again became venues for large-scale displays of patriotism, and technological advances in public address systems allowed songs to be played without a band. “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played before games throughout the course of the war, and by the time the war was over, the pregame singing of the national anthem had become cemented as a baseball ritual, after which it spread to other sports.

But even after the war, the habit of playing the anthem at every game was not firmly in place until the Vietnam war. 

It was during the Vietnam war, however, that the spread of the national anthem’s use finally met with some resistance. Historian Marc Ferris, in his book Star Spangled Banner notes that similar protests took place in the NFL during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Ferris recounts how “Responding to [protests during the playing of the anthem at the 1968 Olympics] the league’s commisioner, Pete Rozelle, required players to hold their helmets in their left hands and salute the flag during the anthem.” But, This was not without its detractors within the NFL, and, Ferris notes, “Anthem controversies [during the 1970s] helped institute and increased analysis of sports, which turned into the primary battleground over the beleaguered national anthem and its meaning.” 

By the Obama era, however, not even this grassroots spread of the anthem was sufficient for the federal government. 

By 2009, the Pentagon was actively using taxpayer money to pay the National Football League to expand “patriotic” displays:

In 2009, Barack Obama’s Department of Defense began paying hundreds of thousands towards teams in a marketing strategy designed to show support for the troops and increase recruitments. The NFL then required all players and personnel to be on the sidelines during the national anthem, in exchange for taxpayers dollars. Prior, the national anthem was played in the stadium but players had the option of staying in the locker room before heading out to the field. 

Furthermore, teams that showed “Veteran’s Salutes” during games were paid upwards of $5.1 million dollars.

In total, 6.8 million in taxpayer money was doled out to sports teams — mostly NFL teams — for so-called “paid patriotism.” 

A Marketing Gimmick

In most cases, the use of the anthem was not directly subsidized, however. Usually, team owners quite voluntarily employed the anthem as a marketing gimmick. In times of war, team owners were happy to use the anthem as a type of advertising to make an emotional connection between the customers—i.e., the spectators—and the team’s product. Wrapping a commercial product in the flag and apple pie to increase sales is hardly unique to pro sports. But pro sports may have used this tactic more successfully than any other industry. 

Prior to its use in sporting events, the national anthem had been cunningly used by Vaudeville acts “when the management would bring out the flag to win applause for a poor act.” This fact, related by Baltimore Orioles general manager—and World War I veteran—Arthur Ehlers was presented as a reason why Ehlers opposed playing the national anthem at every game. Ehlers felt overuse of the anthem could be done cynically, and would “cheapen” the song. 

Ehlers, it turns out, remembered things correctly. In an article in Collier’s magazine in 1914, the amused author notes the widespread use of the anthem to elicit a positive response from audiences at performances: 

[N]othing is more destructive to gravity than to watch a small oppressed poodle dog walking a tight wire in a vaudeville show with the United States flag hanging from his mouth, while the orchestra plays “The Star-Spangled Banner” and some stout, earnest woman, standing in solitary grandeur in the middle of the house, glares at the sodden mass of humanity which declines to do reverence to the anthem or the flag or the dog. … If encouraged in this sort of business, some clog dancer may yet do the Doxology in ragtime while the audience stands with bowed and contrite heads.1

Apparently, by 1914, it had already become fashionable to use the anthem to browbeat spectators into assigning deep meaning to what was clearly—like NBA basketball—never anything more than trivial low-brow entertainment. The author, with his sarcastic reference to the anthem as a “Doxology” knew when he was being manipulated.

Decades after the Collier’s writer observed the anthem’s value as a commercial strategy, Ehlers, it seems, was attempting to actually preserve some dignity for the anthem.

Everything Is Political

The NBA’s new mandate that every team must play the anthem is the sort of thing we’ve come to expect from organizations like the NBA and the NFL. Although the NBA has spent much of its time in recent years trying to appeal to Chinese nationals, it has apparently decided that it’s still in the game of pandering to Americans, with gimmicky displays of “patriotism” on the one hand, and “Black Lives Matter” slogans on the other. Of course, pro sports organizations could have elected to simply not have any political content to its games at all. That would ahve been the smart thing to do. Instead, organizations like the NBA and the NFL have spent the last few decades relying on the national anthem as a cynical ploy. Employing “antiracism” and BLM politics is just the natural evolution of this. The NBA’s latest turn toward supporting use of the national anthem shouldn’t be read as any sort of move toward right wing politics. It just a signal that the NBA continues to believe it can easily manupulate its audience with slogans and displays of jingoism. The NBA is probably right. 

  • 1. “We Shy at Vaudeville Patriotism,” Colliers, March 14, 1914.

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