Why do sports events begin with the national anthem? At Monday's Stanley Cup game in Los Angeles, Pia Toscano belted out "The Star-Spangled Banner" alongside a uniformed Navy hero while a team of fans held a giant flag that filled a quarter of the rink (see video below). Why? What's the connection between sports and love of country? Is it just a mutually supportive melding of civil religion and sports cult?
The Francis Scott Key classic of 1814 did not become our official national anthem until 1931, though President Woodrow Wilson initiated its unofficial use in 1916. During the patriotic zeal of the First World War it became common for brass bands to play patriotic songs for the spectators. Key's "Star-Spangled Banner" in particular caught the public's attention during the 1918 World Series, after which it became standard to play it before the game but only on special occasions such as Opening Day, national holidays, and World Series games. The national trials of World War II moved us to play it before every game, and this has been the tradition ever since and has become common for most other major sports.
That's the brief history, but is there a natural connection between patriotic observances and sports competitions that people have perhaps intuited? Life is full of rituals, whether in church, the halls of Congress, the sports stadium, or even at the dinner table. They underscore what is most important and they train our hearts to order our loves accordingly. Before feeding our bellies we remember our God lest our bellies become our god. The moral urgency for properly ordering the heart is obvious in church and government, but it's also clear in sports.
Sportsmen play hard for competitive goods, especially glory and money. If these things are what is most important in life, then there is no moral reason not to cheat and even kill for them. So the pre-game ritual reminds players and fans alike of what transcends the game: the rule of law, our equal value, and what we treasure in common. That many players these days are not American is beside the point. America is not just any nation. It's a republic of laws, committed to the self-evident truth that all men are created equal and are thus of equal value. Standing respectfully together for the national anthem encourages us to play and cheer accordingly. Fight songs have their place, but if assigned the highest place they can bring out the worst, not the best, in our sports enthusiasm. The warrior spirit is necessary among every people, but it needs restraining and tutoring.
Of course, opening with prayer and a hymn would be better, and if we were a people who were broadly happy with that we would have fewer problems as a people. But as it is, a reminder before each game that we share a great country that looks beyond itself to a higher law and under whose divinely and graciously instituted protection we live (Romans 13:1-10) is good.
It was not for this reason that we started the tradition of patriotic observances before sports events, but it's a good reason to keep them.