It was just recently noticed that the Dallas Mavericks haven’t been playing the national anthem before their games. As one might imagine, the response was not exactly tepid, especially from the right-wing blathosphere. Yet, immediately following a comment from the league offices, the pugnaciously outspoken franchise owner Mark Cuban buckled like a belt; the team issued a statement that the anthem would play. When NBA VP Michael Bass was asked about Cuban’s move, he said, “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.” And with that, Cuban was done playing the billionaire rebel.
Cuban’s truncated effort to spike “The Star-Spangled Banner” is, of course, a response to players’ kneeling during the anthem to protest police violence, as well as to new critiques about the racism rooted in both the anthem’s origins and the verses that we do not sing. On this issue over the last several years, Cuban has been as mercurial as ever, criticizing players for kneeling in 2017, but saying even more recently, in June, “If [players] were taking a knee and they were being respectful, I’d be proud of them. Hopefully I’d join them.”
In July, he lashed out at Ted Cruz’s ugly slandering of protesting players over social media, saying, “The National Anthem Police in this country are out of control.” That’s quite a swing, and now Cuban, who has never balked at taking the big swing, kiboshed the anthem altogether. In terms of his motivation, Cuban told the Dallas Morning News: “During our games, most people don’t even show up for the anthem. When they’re at the game, on the concourses they don’t stop. Some don’t even stand. I would rather not play it if people won’t respect it, and I would rather not play it if it is going to be used as a weapon when people disagree with what it represents…. I wanted to see if anyone noticed. No one said a word.”
This was a correct decision. The United States is actually one of the few countries on Earth that plays its national anthem before non-national sporting events. The origin of this practice lie in the world wars of the 20th century. The idea was that the anthem would play during the wars and then stop during times of peace. But with the start of the Cold War following World War II, it continued—a cultural marker that the United States should see itself on a perpetual state-of-war footing. The hyper-conservative, staunchly anti-labor sports owners of the 1950s also saw playing the anthem before their games as savvy marketing as they attempted to make a buck on the anti-communist hysteria of the times. Then, in the aftermath of 9/11, performing the anthem became a bombastic ritual of support for “the troops,” law enforcement, and our forever wars. Major League Baseball even took to playing two anthems after 9/11—“The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful,” something the NFL does as well.
We are in a decisively new era, broken from the post-9/11 rituals of easy-to-demonize external enemies of the United States. Call it the Kaepernick era, a time when players use the space the anthem creates to showcase their dissent in the face of racialized state violence. Or call it the post-Trump era, a time when an army of white-supremacist enemies have emerged from within, taking the flag and using it as a justification for their own brand of sedition.
There could be a right-wing motivation for stopping the anthem—you stop the anthem, you stop the player protests—but that didn’t seem to be where Cuban was coming from. He seemed willing to dispense with the entire ritual, but clearly, he could not take the heat. It’s a damn shame. We don’t show our allegiance to flag and country before a movie or a concert. Why should there be this kind of compulsory act before sports? A sporting event is one of the few times—outside of a protest—where you feel a sense of united energy with the thousands of people around you. It’s escapism and welcome fun. But in recent years when that anthem plays, some people sit, some take a knee, some escape to the bathroom or concessions, and some do stand. It has become a symbol of how disunited we all are.
That’s not because of Kaepernick. That’s because of police officers who have shredded the Constitution and used violence under a cover of patriotism to enforce their will against brown and Black communities across this country. We are disunited because, as Chris Hayes wrote—paraphrasing W.E.B. Du Bois—we operate as a colony within a nation. Compulsory patriotism isn’t really patriotism at all, and as long as there is this yawning gap between what we are told this country stands for and the lived experiences of millions of Americans, that anthem should collect dust. For a brief moment, it looked like Cuban would be the franchise owner to say enough is enough. But he couldn’t take the weight. Cuban likes to affect the persona of the billionaire rebel, but other than some hot air, it doesn’t seem to amount to much. That’s the problem with being a walking contradiction. One side eventually wins out.