My nephew is the starting point guard for his high school basketball team. I try to make as many games as I can, which means I’ve spent (and will be spending) many Tuesday and Friday evenings this winter in various high school gymnasiums throughout Western Pennsylvania.
I was in one of these gyms last night and watched his team win their third consecutive game. It was, objectively, a boring-ass game. Although my nephew (a junior who’s 6 feet 4 inches and still growing) will be good enough to earn a college basketball scholarship—and he has a senior teammate who already committed to a Division I school—Western Pennsylvania is not exactly known as a hotbed for high school basketball talent, and these games are often low-scoring slugfests with almost as many fouls and turnovers (combined) as points. There were (maybe) 300 people in attendance, and the biggest cheers of the night came at halftime, when a group of students played musical chairs on the court.
A sparsely attended high school basketball game in the Pittsburgh suburbs is not the most natural setting for a jingoistic war anthem to begin the proceedings. But because this is America, the game couldn’t begin until “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played: a song that was preceded by the public-address announcer giving a 90-second-long preamble asking everyone to respect the country, the players, the coaches, the families, the referees, the cheerleaders, the delivery man who bought the pizzas to the concession stand, the parking lot attendants, Paul Ryan, Private Ryan, Ryan Seacrest and watercress salad—a thinly veiled reference to the anthem-related protests happening at athletic events across the country.
I wasn’t yet in the gym when this occurred. I’d just walked into the gym-adjacent lobby when the P.A. announcer began to speak, and I stood there while the anthem played, able to see the bored and fidgety faces of many of the players and the fans during the song, expressions that all conveyed the same message: “Can this song hurry the fuck up and end so we can start this damn game?”
This is a part of the anthem that gets somewhat obscured in the conversations about the anthem-related protests at sporting events. No one really gives a shit about actually hearing the anthem. Of course, I’m sure if I polled the (predominantly white) audience at last night’s game, most would express a reverence and perhaps even a love for the anthem.
But I’m also sure that if the game were played with no anthem—that if maybe the P.A. system was broken or the choir hired to sing it was stuck in a Chick-fil-A drive-thru—none of those anthem-philes would actually miss it. No one would storm the court demanding that we whistle “The Star-Spangled Banner” in unison before the jump ball. They’d just be happy the game started early because they now might be able to make it home in time for NCIS.
The anthem ritual is even more absurd when you consider that, at most of the sporting events the anthem is played at, the performing of the anthem isn’t even live. While anthem performances at professional sporting events are a thing people at least pretend to care about, those represent a small percentage of the actual anthem performances.
Most occur at the thousands of high schools and colleges holding sporting events every night. And many of them just don’t have the budget to pay someone for that or even the care to put any effort into asking someone to do it for free. Instead, you’re left with a 60-second-long recording of it that was probably created in 1817 and not updated since because, again, no one actually gives enough of a shit about the anthem to rerecord a new standard anthem tape for high schools and colleges who don’t give enough of a shit about it to just ask someone to sing it.
And also ... have you actually listened to the words of that fucking song? It’s a song about bombs and terror and death and destruction! It includes phrases about perilous fights and bombs bursting in midair! THERE’S NOTHING CUTE OR NOSTALGIC ABOUT A CRUISE MISSLE IN YOUR EYE!
The most iconic stretch of the song (“O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave/O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”) is a question that’s basically asking, “Yeah, I know my wife, my parents, my home, my dog and even my goldfish were incinerated by the bombs exploding on their faces, but at least is the flag still up?”
Only a sociopath would ask about a fucking flag while his family’s ashes are still blowing in his face, and only a nation of sociopaths would require that this tribute to murder would be played before high school basketball games. Not the Olympics. Not the Super Bowl. Not the Uber you’re in when you’re on the way to murder someone. But again, a high school basketball game. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a soundtrack to a snuff film.