Ending National Anthem in Sports Ends a Stepping Stone in Music

Reba McEntire Singing National Anthem

Billionaire owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks basketball franchise Mark Cuban caused quite the stir this week when he announced the team would no longer include recitations of the National Anthem before home games. At the 16 home games The Mavericks have played so far in the current season, the anthem hasn’t been played, and on February 9th the team made the policy official, with reports saying the team initially cleared the decision with the NBA.

The implications of this were major. Eliminating the National Anthem at sporting events would be a major paradigm shift in American culture, with the Dallas Mavericks potentially setting off a domino effect for all games in all leagues at all levels having an excuse now to not include the song in the presentation. The mere idea sent major reverberations throughout the sports world.

Of course many will focus on the political implications of this effort by Mark Cuban and and others to eliminate the National Anthem, and it will be argued about ad nauseum back and forth without any ultimate gain, goal, or resolution, just like many social issues that roil the public. But if public sentiment turns and it sets off a domino effect where the National Anthem is eliminated at sporting events at large, it could have major implications in the music world that many are not calculating for at the moment.

Though Mark Cuban has not specifically cited the National Anthem as socially problematic, that is most certainly the stance some have been taking. But opponents of playing the anthem are also taking other stances that just don’t make any sense. One of the prevailing opinions is “Hey, they don’t play the National Anthem at my office every morning before we start work, so why would they do it at a sports game?” This sentiment has been shared over and over on social media amid the debate, and by prominent commentators such as Kevin Williams at the Chicago Tribune.

But the reason they don’t play the National Anthem at your work is because it’s not a community function. 50,000-100,000 people don’t regularly congregate to watch a cubicle farm go through the motions 9 to 5 on a Tuesday. Commentators don’t broadcast play by plays from your office to radio, TV, and online audiences. Many sports venues were paid for in part by government dollars and/or tax incentives. Same goes for many of the smaller ballparks, hockey rinks, football stadiums, and gymnasiums throughout the country. Sports events are commonly civic gatherings, which is the reason for performing the “Star Spangled Banner.”

Others complain the National Anthem is simply a waste of time, which seems like a strange complaint about a 2-minute song being performed at the beginning of a 2 to 3-hour match where grown men fight over a rubber or pigskin ball. That seems like a loss of perspective.

Ultimately though, the NBA overruled Mark Cuban and The Mavericks, saying in a statement on 2-10, “With NBA teams now in the process of welcoming fans back into their arenas, all teams will play the national anthem in keeping with longstanding league policy.”

Mark Cuban later responded to the NBA’s statement with, “We are good with it,” meaning they will begin including the National Anthem in game presentations after all. At least for now.

But the eliminating the National Anthem could have major implications on the music world that need to be discussed in the debate. Performing the National Anthem is often one of the most important stepping stones in an amateur or professional musician’s career, and may be one of the few opportunities to be able to perform in front of a large crowd. It’s a rite of passage. This may seem superfluous to some, but many singers will cite the performing of the National Anthem at sporting events as one of the most pivotal moments of their career. From minor league baseball games in smaller communities, to packed NFL stadiums, these performances can make an artist, and help break a career when other opportunities don’t present themselves.

The National Anthem is just as much a part of the musical farm system in America as local radio, open mics, dive bars, and county fairs. And with the evaporation of locally-programmed radio, an opportunity to sing the National Anthem may be the only opportunity an up-and-coming artist has to perform for a large local crowd, and receive recognition.

This is not a hypothetical. In 1974 while a sophomore in college at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, Reba McEntire performed the National Anthem at the National Finals Rodeo in Oklahoma City (see video below). In the crowd that day was Red Steagall. Red was so impressed with Reba’s performance, he eventually brought her to Nashville where she was signed to Mercury Records. The rest is history.

“After the rodeo, we all went up to the Justin [boots] suite at the Hilton and we were all in this big suite and the guys were passing the guitar around, and somebody asked me to sing ‘Jolene,’ no ‘Joshua,'” Reba later recalled.

This is just one of many instances of the National Anthem being a critically-important stepping stone in music. The National Anthem is also often an important cross-pollination event between genres and cultures, like we saw at the 2021 Super Bowl with Eric Church and Jazmine Sullivan turning their respective fan bases onto new music through the collaboration. Since it’s recited at community gatherings, music fans are exposed to artists they otherwise might not be. This is why major labels and booking agents actively work their clients to the sports world to perform National Anthems if they desire to in an effort to increase their name recognition.

And none of this is to mention the iconic recitations of the song, from Whitney Houston’s 1991 performance at the Super Bowl, to Marvin Gaye’s magical rendition at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game, to Jennifer Hudson’s at the 2009 Super Bowl, to Jimi Hendrix playing the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock in 1969 … well, not exactly a sporting event, but one we all remember for sure. These are iconic moments in music and American history, and should not be sacrificed for silly concerns over time constraints, or some other misnomer about the National Anthem’s relevancy.

Performing the National Anthem is not just a sports issue. It’s a music issue. And eliminating its recitation as a matter of course would mean the elimination of thousands of opportunities for local, regional, and national performers to sing in front of crowds, and shine, inspire, uplift, and perhaps even make their career, or inspire a young person in the crowd to to pursue music or singing themselves.

Perhaps the era of the “Star Spangled Banner” before all sports games is fleeting. But the musical quotient should definitely be considered in that calculus.

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