The NFL and the Anthem

Posted by on Sep 13, 2021 in Current Events, People and Culture

The National Football League (NFL) kicked off the 2021 season on Thursday, September 9. Some people who viewed the pregame ceremonies may have been surprised to hear two pre-game anthems. Yes, plural. The NFL has pledged to play “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in addition to performing the traditional “The Star-Spangled Banner” during pre-game ceremonies for all league games.

 “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Sports History

The ”Star-Spangled Banner” was first linked to sports on May 15, 1862, at the dedication of a Brooklyn, New York, baseball field. The song was played again during World War I at the 1918 World Series, and it surged in popularity as patriotism swelled at the onset of World War II. It was played at hockey and football games as well as baseball games.

“The Star Spangled Banner” didn’t become the country’s national anthem until 1931, but it was a demonstration of patriotism during times of active war and during the Cold War.

The Anthem and the NFL

Typically played during pre-game ceremonies, some NFL players chose to be on the field while spectators sang, saluted, and stood during the anthem. Other players chose to stay in the locker room. That changed in 2009 when players were ordered to be on the field when the anthem was played. Between 2011 and 2014, the Department of Defense paid the NFL to stage on-field ceremonies to encourage military recruitment. 

Colin Kaepernick (7) and other members of the San Francisco 49ers kneel during the national anthem before a game in 2016.
Colin Kaepernick (7) and other members of the San Francisco 49ers kneel during the national anthem before a game in 2016.

During the 2016 NFL season, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began a silent protest during the performance of the national anthem. During the preseason games, Kaepernick sat. Beginning with the first regular season game, Kaepernick knelt while players and fans stood during the anthem’s performance. Kaepernick was protesting racial inequities in the United States and police violence against African American suspects.

Public reaction and NFL responses against Kaepernick became a highly debated topic. After a few seasons of discussion and some disagreement, the NFL made the decision to play “Lift Every Voice and Sing” along with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Commonly known as the national anthem for many black Americans, the NFL is giving over $250 million to organizations that aid the African American population. This includes the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, the National Urban League, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, and the United Negro College Fund.

“Lift Every Voice and Sing”

James Weldon Johnson wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in 1877. The verse was intended to unify the African American community in the fight for equality and justice. It was later set to music just as Key’s poem was.

The second and third stanzas are specifically written as an anthem for African Americans, the last three lines—“May we forever stand/True to our God/True to our native land”—serve as a testament to patriotic loyalty to the country.

First performed in 1900, the song did not gain prominence for several years. The song was used by the NAACP in the 1950s and 1960s as a rallying cry during the civil rights movement. Performed at Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, ”Lift Every Voice and Sing” caught the attention of the nation as a “message of multicultural hope and aspiration.”

Dig Deeper Use the Internet to find the lyrics to both “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Read and compare the songs’ lyrics. What is similar? What is different? How do the lyrics of each song reflect American values?