The big question about national anthems at sporting events: Why?

 

The morning after the All-Star Game, Major League Baseball’s annual celebration of the game’s diverse pool of their best and brightest, all of the attention is on a Canadian operatic pop group.

While performing the Canadian national anthem at Petco Park ahead of the game, Remigio Pereira, a member of The Tenors, changed the “With glowing hearts…” line in O Canada to “We’re all brothers and sisters, all lives matter to the great,” holding up a sign that read “All Lives Matter” to be broadcast to his platform of millions.

The Tenors have since issued an apology for his actions, calling him a “lone wolf”.

“The actions of one member of this group were extremely selfish and he will not be performing with The Tenors until further notice,” the statement read.

Saying “All Lives Matter” can, with a well-meaning surface read and to those uninformed, appear to be a harmless, even politely encouraging message. It isn’t.

To those familiar with the Black Lives Matter movement, “All Lives Matter” is a deeply dismissive idea, and to many individuals, wholly offensive. Black Lives Matter is not a movement to achieve superiority over All Lives or directly depreciate white lives (often the “All”), it is simply aiming to achieve equality in culture, the legal system, policing, health, education, the list goes on (because it unfortunately must).

Heightening the impact of Pereira’s actions were the audience that he was afforded by singing the national anthem before a major sporting event, a tradition that continues on largely unquestioned. But why?

This conversation arose during the NBA playoffs with “Anthemgate” (yes, the name has been used already). Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat continued shooting throughout the Canadian national anthem, causing a brief outrage in Canada. Wade apologized, arrived promptly to the line for the next game’s anthem, and we moved on.

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The use of The Star-Spangled Banner ahead of baseball games is a much longer story, one that predates President Hoover naming the song the official national anthem of the United States in 1931. During World War I, the 1918 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs used the song both before and during certain games.

It then became commonly used on special occasions, like opening day, Independence Day, or future World Series’, before eventually growing into an everyday feature.

In a game played by Americans, for Americans, or by Canadians, Dominicans, Russians, Australians, within their own country and for their own country, there is sense in the anthem.

When a Canadian national team faces an American national team in hockey, there is sense in the anthem. The Olympic and Paralympic Games show this beautifully, with some of the most powerful moments being the flag-raising and anthems at medal ceremonies. The World Cup, Rugby World Cup, or Cricket World Cup are all fine examples, too, where a nation is largely united behind a team that consists of individuals from their country.

In these moments, the athletes are representing their country. The anthem is representing their country. There is sense.

Change the landscape, though, and add a Dominican, a Venezuelan, and a Korean athlete to a gold-medal winning Canadian team at the upcoming Olympics. Or add six Spanish players and three Argentinians to Team France at the 2018 World Cup in Moscow. As they hoist the FIFA World Cup Trophy, does it still make sense for La Marseillaise to play?

Blue Jays

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That is where baseball finds itself. The same can be said for the NHL, NBA, and NFL, but aside from the influx of European hockey players, the overwhelming majority of athletes playing these sports at the highest levels and for the largest audiences Canadian or American.

A 2014 study from Harvard Sports Analysis showed that, behind Major League Soccer, Major League Baseball was the most diverse league of the “big four” (though let’s stretch that to six and include the WNBA and MLS), and had the lowest “majority percentage” racially with approximately 60% white players (Latino players accounted for close to 30%).

The Blue Jays, as a case study in terms of nationalities, currently feature two Canadians on their 25-man roster, a Venezuelan, a Mexican, and two Dominicans. On the disabled list and heading back towards the 25-man are another Dominican and Venezuelan in Jose Bautista and Franklin Morales.

In these professional team sports, a country is rarely being represented. In fact, the Blue Jays may be the closest thing that the big six sports have, given their position as their nation’s only team.

There is a patriotism in place that must be respected as part of the anthem conversation, certainly, though it does bring to light exactly whose patriotism is being encouraged and why. Many feel that O Canada or The Star-Spangled Banner have lost their impact, and in being played ad nauseam alongside every possible sporting event, have begun to disassociate from their original message and national pride.

Instead, to many fans, pre-game anthems are a routine. Stand up, remove hat, fix hair, mouth along, reapply hat, sit down. The spectacle, to many, is now often lost.

Like so many pieces of tradition, especially those engrained within something so traditional as baseball, anthems carry on because this is the way it has always been.

If Major League Baseball were to propose adding anthems to an anthem-less game in 2016, though, how different would the conversation be without the century of routine and the since-developed normalcy? And how long would it take for someone to mention the pace of play?

 

 

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