The Dallas Mavericks won’t be playing the national anthem at their games anymore as reported by Tim Cato at The Athletic magazine on January 9. The decision was made by owner Mark Cuban. The change was quietly made without any fanfare or announcements by Cuban or the team. The team had not played the anthem in any of its 13 regular and preseason games at its home field, American Airlines Center in Dallas.

On Twitter, Shams Charania, a “Senior lead NBA Insider/Writer/Analyst for The Athletic and Stadium,” offered this as the reason behind Mr. Cuban’s decision:

This statement begs the question: if the National Anthem does not represent them as Americans, what will?

Playing the National Anthem at sporting events is a fairly recent practice, but then again, so are professional sporting events with large crowds. Here is how it began.

A Quick History of the National Anthem at Sporting Events

The date was September 5, 1918. The first game of the World Series was being played between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs at Comiskey Park in Chicago. The fans in attendance were said to be in a somber mood. The United States had entered WWI 18 months earlier in April of 1917. By that point, 100,000 Americans had already died and there was no sign the Germans were ready to surrender. The fans attending the game may have felt guilty about enjoying themselves at a ball game while U.S. “Doughboys” were dying overseas. The country was still mobilizing in the midst of war and the government had announced that major league ballplayers would be draft-eligible in the near future. It’s important to remember that baseball was a much bigger sport in 1918 than it is now.

There were ballparks all over the country and dozens of teams in different league categories. If you wanted to go watch a game and enjoy the thrill of being in a large crowd there was certainly a ball game being played somewhere near you every day. In 1918s Chicago there three professional baseball teams and the Navy Baseball Team at Great Lakes had seven former professional players on its amateur team. The news that pro ballplayers would be drafted meant pretty much that baseball would be ended in the country until the war was over.

The audience for that first game was said to be much smaller than expected and at the seventh-inning stretch, the Navy Band began to play “The Star-Spangled Banner.” An infielder for the Red Sox named Rex Thomas decided to turn and face the American Flag and render a military salute. You see, Thomas was in the Navy and on a furlough to play baseball. Then other players removed their hats and placed them over their hearts. Soon the audience began to sing the words. At the end, the audience applauded so loudly that the New York Times reported that it marked the high point of crowd enthusiasm for that day.

Seeing the response from the crowd and the press attention it brought to a lackluster World Series, the Cubs made sure to play the song at the beginning of each game. Going even further, the team invited wounded veterans to attend the games for free and even rendered public honors to them prior to the game.

Soon other teams began to play the song on special occasions and it grew so much in popularity that it spread to other team sports. The Star-Spangled Banner became the National Anthem in 1931 and by the end of WWII, the NFL had ordered it be played at every game.

So, did the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner represent major league sports forcing patriotic displays on the fans attending games? Or did it simply reflect the patriotism of the fans themselves?

Mark Cuban, Patriotism and the Star Spangled Banner

James Dator, writing for SBNation, thinks otherwise. In a piece titled, “Mark Cuban Is Standing Up To Patriotism For Profits in Sports” he supports Cuban’s decision.

“There’s no doubt that the roots of playing the national anthem began in good faith. The Star-Spangled Banner was seen as a source of unity and comfort during two of the darkest times in American history following the first and second World War. At the time there was an inherent need for people to pull together for the good of the country, unite, and be proud of the stand taken against invasion and oppression overseas,” Dator writes.

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He then goes on to say that the country no longer is facing such dark days (President Biden’s claims about COVID-19 to the contrary notwithstanding). Dator continues:

“That said, things changed. The inherent need to play the anthem dissipated, particularly in the last decade without a grand act like a World War to rally around. The act of showing pride in the nation carried implicit approval of policy decisions, whether that meant supporting foreign wars many deemed unnecessary or conflating support of the armed forces with approval of law enforcement, which found, time and time again, to have devastating problems with systemic racism and justice equality. Some individuals in the NFL and NBA, where players are predominantly people of color, felt that participating in forced patriotism like the anthem made them complicit in supporting a status quo for marginalized people who shared their background. That standing for the anthem was no longer about showing support for their country, but re-affirming the concept that everything was “fine,” when in reality mammoth gaps in equality remained.”

I can take issue with a couple of the ideas expressed in the above article. First, President Biden made explicit and repeated calls for national unity in the wake of his contentious election over Donald Trump. We are in the midst of an ongoing war with Islamist terrorism; we are said to face great risk from domestic terrorism; and we are battling a pandemic that is on pace to kill more Americans in less than two years than WWI and WWII combined. Can it honestly be said that the country isn’t in dark days?

Second, while it’s entirely proper for the people of any country to point to continued social problems needing to be collectively addressed by the nation, does it make any sense to hate and despise the national anthem as the symbol of collective unity needed to solve these same problems? Since we are partly talking sports here, do you turn your back on your favorite team at any missed catch or botched play? If you don’t like a decision by management do you wear your team jersey inside out or burn it on the field? Do you demand your favorite team be disbanded, moved to another city, and renamed if they have a losing season? Or are you loyal to your team because it is your team?

There is a certain fashion of anti-patriotism existing in this country today. It expresses a conceit held by some that because America is not perfect, it cannot still be good. According to this group, America, collectively, falls well short of the impeccable standards of conduct they feel it needs to have to be worthy of the high honor they have bestowed on it simply by being born here. Virtually everything they hate and despise about this country relates to some decision our government has made, while every demand for change they make requires that same government to act.

It doesn’t make sense.

Mark Cuban Star Spangled Banner
The New York Yankees hold their caps over their hearts during a performance of the national anthem, 1921. (Credit: FPG/Getty Images)

Playing the National Anthem at sporting events is not “forcing” patriotism on anyone. If you do not feel love, devotion, and attachment to your country (which is what patriotism is) a song won’t put that feeling inside you. The Canadian National Anthem is also played at hockey games, it doesn’t make Americans renounce their citizenship and move to Canada. Mark Cuban is a betting man at heart — you have to be to own any sports team. Cuban is betting that the fashionable anti-patriotic sentiments of the people in Dallas today are stronger than patriotic sense.

While claiming that the anthem is no longer needed for unity and that new symbols are required, Cuban hasn’t gone to the trouble of offering them yet. He is just hoping that people will unify around not singing the anthem anymore. But like the popular acclaim that led to the adoption of the Star-Spangled Banner as our National Anthem, Cuban may be forgetting that the fans get a vote in this too. Fans in the Dallas area can choose not to go to Mavericks games (when attendance is again allowed). Or perhaps they might do what the fans did in Comiskey Park more than a century ago, and this time without a band to prompt them to sing the Star-Spangled Banner.

It is after all our song, this National Anthem. It really belongs to us as a People and we don’t need permission from anybody to sing it anywhere.

New Developments

Shortly after this editorial was first written, the NBA issued a release reminding all NBA teams that playing the National Anthem is league policy. In response, the Dallas Mavericks issued a statement saying they would comply with the NBA’s policy.

Team owner Mark Cuban gave an interview today with Rachel Nichols on ESPN’s “The Jump.” In the interview, Cuban attempted to walk back reports that his team had ever even been implemented such a policy. During the interview, he made statements that contradicted his own previous remarks on the playing of the National Anthem.

Cuban denied that any decision to not play the National Anthem had been made. But then went on to say they had decided not to play the National Anthem at preseason games to see what the response would be. He added that the team would probably return to playing the Anthem when fans come back.

Cuban seems disingenuous in making these claims. First, a decision had obviously been made not to play the anthem as the Mavericks went 13 pre- and regular-season games without it being played. Secondly, the NBA policy about playing the Anthem at the start of each game does not say teams may ignore the policy if fans are not in attendance.

Cuban then added that no decision had ever been made not to play the Anthem when they had fans in attendance. Yet, he then moved the goalposts again to say that by “fans” he meant were “ticket holders” when he noted that in a game the fans in attendance were healthcare workers who had been given free entrance.

“Look, we have no problem playing the national anthem at all. I stand for the National Anthem, my hand is always over my heart. We’ve supported the National Flag Foundation and done work with them, that isn’t the issue at all,” Cuban stated. In an interview where Cuban goes to some pains to describe the systemic racism and inequality that he says the National Anthem is somehow associated with, it seems bizarre that he would say he has no problem playing it at Mavericks games or rendering respectful honors to it himself personally when it is played.

In the past, Cuban has made remarks about the National Anthem that would make one question his sincerity about respecting it. In a July 2020 piece in the Dallas Morning Herald, Cuban said he supported his players taking a knee as a sign of disrespect to the National Anthem saying, “Hopefully I’d join them because I think we’ve learned a lot since 2017.” The subject of the piece was Cuban’s lament that the “National Anthem Police in this country are out of control.’

The July 2020 story was the result of  KSKY 660 AM talk show host and Dallas Morning News contributor Mark Davis having said in a tweet that if Mavericks players disrespected the Anthem during the game he would be “out” in terms of covering them.

Cuban had responded in a tweet to him with a simple “bye.” A moment later Cuban delivered a more forceful rebuke of Davis tweeting,

The National Anthem Police in this country are out of control. If you want to complain, complain to your boss and ask why they don’t play the National Anthem every day before you start work.

— Mark Cuban (@mcuban) July 20, 2020

Cuban had deleted this tweet a short time later.