The national anthem in sports

Spoiler: it wasn’t always this way

In America, the national anthem kicks off every NFL, MLB, NBA, MLS and NHL game featuring an American team, and it’s played before every NASCAR race.

The tradition runs deep and it’s easy to forget it wasn’t always this way.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The national anthem was played at baseball games decades before “The Star Spangled Banner” was officially adopted as the anthem in 1931.

George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images

At first, the anthem didn’t exactly come “free” — you had to hire a band.

Al Bello/Getty Images

Tech advances coupled with a swell of patriotism around WWI and WWII started to make the practice more widespread.

Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

After WWII, then-NFL commissioner Elmer Layden said, “The playing of the national anthem should be as much a part of every game as the kickoff.”

Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

The anthem thus became a game-day fixture, but players typically stayed in the locker room for it except for special games like the Super Bowl or after 9/11.”


It wasn’t until 2009 that players were mandated to be on the field for the song. And while the US Code says you should stand for the anthem, there’s no such rule in the NFL.

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

But the NFL does have a rule on personal protests:

“players are prohibited from wearing, displaying, or otherwise conveying personal messages either in writing or illustration, unless such message has been approved in advance...”

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began the NFL anthem protests in 2016, saying he refused to “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

After President Trump called for owners to fire any “son of a bitch” who “disrespected our flag,” players responded in a variety of ways, including kneeling, locking arms, and staying in the locker room for the anthem.

CNN Media

Between 2012 and 2015, the Department of Defense spent $6.8 million on “paid patriotism,” essentially paying teams for displays of national pride like flag ceremonies.

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

But there’s nothing to suggest that NFL players were paid or coerced into participating in the anthem.

For now, the league will let teams decide what is best for them.

Matt York/AP