Last Sunday, Americans observed and reflected on the arrival of the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
It was at the very least an emotional day and at worst, a horrific and tragic reminder of lives lost and families torn apart. We were reminded of the heroic acts of first responders and we wept at the sounds of a country in despair.
The most visible tribute, other than the actual 9/11 Memorial at the site of the fallen World Trade Center towers, was on the fields of the every NFL stadium. Nationwide, in solemn solidarity, NFL teams, players and affiliates gave a classy tribute to those who fell and those who still grieve.
It started with an introduction of the opening of the 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero by Robert De Niro and the unfurling of an American Flag the size of the actual field in every stadium.
A moment of silence followed and then, as with nearly every sporting event in these United States, the National Anthem was sung.
I watched this with a friend while I awaited the kick-off of each of the Sunday games. I tried not to watch too much of the tributes in the days leading up, just for the fact that it’s difficult viewing and I don’t want to be desensitized to it. The images and memories of that day are still raw and I don’t ever want them not to be.
My friend commented that he didn’t understand why we hear the “Star-Spangled Banner” at sporting events. I thought about it for a while but I didn’t have an immediate answer. Why are sporting events the de facto areas for our display of patriotism? I know it started during World War I as a sign of patriotism at baseball games, but the tradition has endured.
As I pondered this, I started thinking about how we choose to show our patriotism and love for country. Simply being a flag waver and declaring “America is the best” isn’t exactly patriotic. Nationalism is not patriotism.
My thoughts took me back to my formative years in school when we started each day with the Pledge of Allegiance. I remember wondering why we had to do this in school, but I never objected to it. It was simply part of our day.
I remember wondering why we had to pledge every day when just once should be enough. In any other moment in life where a pledge is made, it isn’t required to make the pledge again. You mean it the first time. That’s what makes it a pledge.
So my thoughts took me to the promise a man makes to his bride. He makes a pledge to her just once. He needs to uphold this pledge for the rest of his life and doesn’t need to make it again. But he quite often does. Those three little words of “I love you” are essentially making that pledge over and over again.
The person who is married knows that person loves him or her, but it’s always nice to hear it, and if you took a quick sampling of your acquaintances, you’d probably find that people feel that they don’t hear it or say it enough.
I believe we repeat the Pledge of Allegiance over and over in the morning before school because we have obligations and duties as Americans and it’s good to be reminded of them. Those duties being sworn in that pledge are of our allegiance to our flag and our republic.
Saying it every day is like saying “I love you” to America. It’s not necessary, but the republic deserves to hear it. It’s also good practice for a captive audience: children who, before they know how to tie their shoes, learn to promise their allegiance to a flag that stands for justice for all.
So why the national anthem at sporting events? I believe it’s become the carryover from the Pledge of Allegiance. We spend our lives up until the end of high school reciting our pledge and we almost never hear it again, save government meetings and a few public organizations.
We’re not required, but we embrace the chance to experience the national anthem. We want to hear how well this difficult-to-sing ode to our nation’s resilience is performed. We take the opportunity to reflect on the words and when we hear it sung in all its magnificence in a beautiful manner, we get choked up.
We see 300 pound athletes, who might not shed a tear if their arms were ripped off, tear up in these moments of national unity. The presentation of our national anthem penetrates us and binds us. Seeing these behemoths of men reduced to tears gives us a feeling of unity and togetherness rarely experienced.
What makes it even more special is that we share it with thousands of our American brothers and sisters. So to anyone who questions why we do this at sporting events, I say, why not?
On January 27, 1991, just 10 days into the Persian Gulf War, Whitney Houston took the stage in Tampa Stadium to open the Super Bowl with her version of our national anthem. To this day, I haven’t heard a better version of it and thinking about it still gives me chills.
I’ve never lost that feeling and I believe we don’t hear it that often because we also want to keep it fresh. We don’t want it to be just another song, so we chose sporting events to honor it. We don’t want to be desensitized to its power.