The Banner plays roles symbolic, commercial, and practical in professional football. When the Banner begins, all eyes in the stadium turn towards the flag, men remove their hats, and all place their left hand over their heart. The Banner announces that a game is about to begin and calls spectators to focus on the field. It is the calm before combat. A ritual that unifies opposing teams and their supporters in the moments before battle. The anthem shapes spectator emotion and psychically prepares the field of play. It’s all good business, in a competitive sports marketplace in which baseball, hockey, basketball, and football vie for fan devotion and dollars, to make your game into America’s game.
The Banner enters professional sports through the baseball diamond, but its earliest appearances on the gridiron appears to be 1899’s Army-Navy game. Bragging rights are on the line when Army and Navy face off in one of the most storied rivalries in college football. The “Black Knights” of the United States Military Academy at West Point began playing the Midshipmen of the U.S. Naval Academy from Annapolis in 1890. The 1899 contest was the sixth between the teams and the first to be held at a neutral site, a tradition that has continued but began with this game at Philadelphia’s Franklin Field.
Of course, as military academies, both teams were accompanied (long before college sports became big business) by military bands. These bands were accustomed to performing “The Star-Spangled Banner” for flag raising ceremonies and military exercises. In the late 1890s, patriotic sentiment on the homefront had been stoked by America’s decisive victory in the 10-week Spanish-American War, a conflict dominated by the U.S. Navy. Pride in the U.S. Navy was thus especially high.
As reported by the Los Angeles Times in December 1899:
An inspiring incident occurred on Saturday [December 10, 1899]… at the football game between the Annapolis and West Point cadets…. The Annapolis players had been cheered when they dashed upon the field, and they were tumbling about awaiting their rivals’ appearance, when the band that had come with the sailor lads began to play the “Star Spangled Banner.” At once every cadet within sound of the music, whether sailor or soldier, stood at attention and uncovered, as he was bound to do by regulation. Every other military man present obeyed the instincts of his training immediately. Then all present followed this example, and the assemblage of nearly 25,000 persons stood in silence and in the attitude of respect until the stirring sounds ceased. It was an unusual feature of a great athletic contest, and probably a more impressive scene was never witnessed upon such an occasion.”
The author goes on to argue that the cadets’ example “reminded the American public, in a spectacular way, of their duty and privilege when the “Star Spangled Banner” is played or sung.” Too often, Americans carelessly displayed “apparent indifference in pose and manner when the national air is played or sung.” Thus, the players’ patriotic fervor offered an example to the nation, an inspiration surpassing in significance what may have been the first performance of the song at a football game.
The Banner continued to be performed at Army-Navy games in the years that followed, often as part of a celebration at game’s end of both teams and their graduating players. These players were not only leaving school but heading off in service to the country—a service that would likely put them in harm’s way and from which they might not return.
Military conflict and public honor of America’s military seems to have inspired the widening tradition of performing the Banner at football games, and indeed all sporting events. In 1917 just after the U.S. entry into World War One, the University of Michigan football team under coach Fielding H. Yost defeated Cornell 42-0 in Ann Arbor on November 10. During the “intermission” between the two halves, the French Commission was introduced to fans with the Michigan Band playing the French national anthem “La Marseillaise,” followed by “The Star-Spangled Banner.” “America’s guests stood at attention” throughout and, as the Chicago Tribune reported, “It was an inspiring sight—one which commanded the respect of the 400 soldiers from Camp Custer who were guests of the athletic committee.”
The attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 may have galvanized the game day ritual of performing the Banner at each and every football game, collegiate and professional. The strains of “The Star-Spangled Banner” steeled Americans resolve in literally thousands of ceremonies military and civilian during the months following the attack and indeed throughout World War II. Of course, by this time “The Star-Spangled Banner” had been proclaimed the official national anthem of the United States.
Thanks go to U-M graduate student Nicholas Nestorak for help identifying sources for this post.