A new National Football League season is upon us, and once again we face the issue of whether players should stand for the national anthem. This debate has happened before, during the Vietnam War era, for example.
It makes me think that the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner before every sporting event drains the anthem of some of its meaning. Think about this: Every Major League Baseball team will hear the anthem 162 times in the regular season. National Basketball Association teams will hear it 82 times. In the NFL each team will hear the anthem at least 16 times. That doesn’t count how many times the anthem will be played at college football and basketball games and countless other sporting events all around the country.
What if we played the anthem only on more special occasions, such as Opening Day, Memorial Day; July 4, of course; Labor Day; the Super Bowl; the first game of the World Series? I can’t help but think the way we do it now becomes pro forma, something to be dispensed with before the game begins. Would any of us be less of a patriot if the anthem weren’t played at every game?
A patriotic moment I experienced at one sporting event didn’t even involve the national anthem. Here’s how I recall it.
Charlotte, September 1975. Olde Providence Racquet Club. 18-year-old tennis star Martina Navratilova had just announced at the U.S. Open in New York that she was leaving her native Czechoslovakia to become a U.S. resident. The Charlotte event was her first tournament after the Open. Navratilova was playing a Dutch woman, Betty Stöve.
After the two women warmed up, the announcer presented the players. On one side, he said, was Miss Betty Stöve of the Netherlands. Polite applause. On the other side, he said, was Miss Martina Navratilova of – and here I sensed a slight pause – the United States of America. The applause had risen a bit at the mention of Navratilova’s name, as she was better known. It got louder as her new home dawned on the spectators.
Then, Betty Stöve, in one of the classiest moves I’ve ever seen, shouted across the net to Martina, “That’s right! These are your people now!” Raising her arms, Stove exhorted the crowd to a rousing standing ovation for our new resident.
We cheered lustily, proud to be Americans, happy to welcome Martina Navratilova to our country. It was the Cold War era. Czechoslovakia was still in the Soviet bloc. We were glad Navratilova had a country to join that would free her from the oppression of the Czech regime. I wonder if she remembers that moment of welcome for a new American as fondly as I do.
Navratilova, who became a U.S. citizen in 1981, won that day’s match, later defeating Evonne Goolagong to win the tournament, but I had to Google those results. I didn’t remember them, and I don’t remember if the Star-Spangled Banner was played.