O say, don’t take national anthem for granted

08/18/2013 4:21 PM

08/18/2013 4:21 PM

And so the cycle resumed Friday at Arrowhead Stadium, where thousands perpetuated the unbecoming custom of co-opting the end of the “Star-Spangled Banner” to “home of the Chiefs!”

The Chiefs’ first home preseason game of 2013 commenced a 20th season since the tradition evidently all started and never quite ends. The bellow can be heard year-round about anywhere a certain mindset of Chiefs fans might be present and the song is played.

It’s as true in Columbia as in Lawrence, as ever-present at Kauffman Stadium and Sporting Park and Kansas Speedway and high school and youth sports events and, no doubt, ample activities outside athletic venues.

The last time there largely was a refrain from that refrain was at the first major sporting event in Kansas City after 9/11, the Chiefs’ game Sept. 23, 2001, against the New York Giants, suggesting that on that day the anthem actually was worth revering but not otherwise.

The corrupted chorus may leave you shaking your head and thinking it juvenile and disrespectful, as traditionalists and military veterans and seniors generally do. A 2009 Harris Interactive poll revealed a generational distinction that hints at a divide that factors into this:

Ninety-nine percent of Americans 65 or older replied yes when asked if they “usually feel proud to be an American” when they hear the anthem.

Less than 75 percent of those between 18 and 29 said the same.

You can bet those lines are about the same between those who can’t stand it and those who love it, though I don’t believe this is as simple as a referendum on patriotism.

Those who embrace the unique tweak to the song that some other fan bases have commandeered and contoured to their own designs elsewhere see it as a point of pride and passion and, gulp, tradition that spices up a song most of us will hear more than any other in our lives even as two-thirds of us (again, per Harris) still don’t know all the words.

For that matter, it’s reasonable to wonder if the song has been trivialized by becoming so commonplace or has been further honored as an inseparable component of American sports.

Wherever you stand on this, it’s worth trying to understand where that comes from.

Sports and the anthem became culturally linked before the end of World War I and were altogether tethered by around the end of World War II.

As of two pivotal episodes in 1968, though, they also became irreversibly entwined with controversial matters of freedom of expression that paved the way to our own conflict apparently triggered by Huey Lewis and the News.

Yep, for a “Monday Night Football” game against Denver on Sept. 20, 1993, Lewis sang the national anthem at Arrowhead in part as a favor to his friend Joe Montana, who was making his first home appearance with the Chiefs.

With a crowd of 78,453 on hand, the largest in more than 20 years at Arrowhead, Lewis put an exclamation point on his rendition with “home of the CHIEFS!”

Best as anyone, including Chiefs historian Bob Moore, can seem to sort out, with that the tradition was born. Attempts last week to reach Lewis, whose breakout album, incidentally, was called “Sports,” were unsuccessful.

Variations on the theme, some more tasteful than others (see: wow,

Whitney Houston, 1991

, vs., argh, Roseanne Barr, 1990), had become common by then, some 75 years after the anthem was introduced onto the sporting landscape and 25 years after social upheaval began to transform the regimented renditions of a song now nearly 200 years old.

Francis Scott Key wrote it as a poem in 1814, the “Defence of Fort McHenry,” about the siege he’d witnessed in the War of 1812. It soon was put to the melody of an old drinking song and soared in patriotic popularity toward the end of the century, ushered along by the secretary of the Navy in 1889 ordering it to be played during morning flag-raising ceremonies.

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson commanded it be played at all military ceremonies — which in a sense dovetailed into its inception as a sports institution two years later.

Amid the 1918 World Series in Chicago, a brass band played the “Star-Spangled Banner” in the seventh inning with visiting Boston in the field and Babe Ruth on the mound for the Red Sox.

It wasn’t necessarily the first time the song had been played at a sporting event, but it was the most galvanizing. The New York Times was there and made that scene the focal point of its story.

“Far different from any incident that has ever occurred in the history of baseball was the great moment of the first world’s series game between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs,” it began. “As the crowd of 19,724 spectators stood up to take their afternoon yawn that has been the privilege and custom of baseball fans for many generations, the band broke forth to the strains of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’

“The yawns were checked and the heads were bared as the ballplayers turned quickly about and faced the music. Jackie Fred Thomas of the U.S. Navy was at attention, as he stood erect, with his eyes set on the flag fluttering at the top of the lofty pole in right field.

“First the song was taken up by a few, then others joined, and when the final notes came, a great volume of melody rolled across the field. It was at the very end that the onlookers exploded into thunderous applause and rent the air with a cheer that marked the highest point of the day’s enthusiasm.”

So that’s the root of the now-inseparable link. Initially, it was sung only on special occasions, but it sprouted further in 1931 when Congress officially made it our national anthem and it became entrenched during World War II when many took comfort in patriotism and advances in stadium public-address systems helped it spread through baseball to other sports.

With exceptions, surely, it stayed within a certain range of context and content until 1968.

But it’s formal standing started to change that year after Tommie Smith and John Carlos stirred consciences and outrage and death-threats by raising black-gloved fists of protest on the podium at the Mexico City Olympics as the “Star-Spangled Banner” played — just days after Jose Feliciano’s stylized version of the song at the World Series stoked a disturbance of its own.