Did the Olympics make the Star Spangled Banner the US national anthem?

Did the Olympics make the Star Spangled Banner the US national anthem?

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A long, long time ago, I remember watching a TV miniseries about the first Olympics of the modern era in 1896.

One of the amusing substories I remember involved the USA's National Anthem and the Olympic band. The story was that the band leader asked the USA delegation for their national anthem to play in the event. He was told that the USA didn't have one, and was provided a list of three songs that are commonly used.

The "amusing" part was that the band leader picked his favorite of the three, but one of his band members prefered The Star Spangled Banner, and secretly replaced the band leader's choice with it. Thereafter whenever the USA won something, we got a shot of the anthem being played, with the one band member looking smug and the band leader looking disgusted.

I'm wondering how much of this is true, and how much was just made up for the drama. It does appear to be true that The Star Spangled Banner didn't become the USA National Anthem until 1931, but how much (if any) of that had to do with the Olympics? Was it in fact the song played for the USA at the 1896 games?

My answer is that this is just a dramatization with little to no research done by the producing team. The tradition of playing the winning team's national anthem was not begun until the 1932 Olympics (a common misconception is that the tradition started at the 1924 Olympics). So, in other words, it is impossible that the Star Spangled Banner was played at the 1896 Olympics. The only anthem played at the 1896 Olympics was the Greek anthem (because they were the host country). The Olympic anthem wasn't used until the 1960 games.

So, to sum it up, TV is very unreliable and should be used when seeking drama, not fact.


  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1932_Summer_Olympics

  • http://olympic-museum.de/first/first.html#1932

Here's a link to 36 USC Section 301, regarding the national anthem:


There are a number of references in the code about the "military salute."

It seems like the Star Spangled Banner was chosen for its "martialness."

The Olympics probably weren't a factor. The song was adopted by an act of Congress in 1931, a year in which there were no Olympics.

The words of "The Star Spangled Banner" were first written on September 14, 1814 by Francis Scott Key as a poem titled, "The Defence of Fort McHenry."

Key, a lawyer and an amateur poet, was being detained on a British warship during the British naval bombardment of Baltimore's Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. When the bombardment subsided and Key witnessed that Fort McHenry was still flying its huge American flag, he began writing his poem. (Historical Note: This flag was truly huge! It measured 42 by 30 feet!)

Key recommended that his poem be sung as a song to the popular British tune, "To Anacreon in Heaven." It soon became known as "The Star Spangled Banner."

Did the Olympics make the Star Spangled Banner the US national anthem? - History

It has been hard to ignore the mixing of sports and politics recently, as President Donald Trump -- both on the stump and on Twitter -- repeatedly expressed his disgust with athletes who take a knee during the pre-game rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. Most NFL players, and some coaches and owners, reacted against Trump&rsquos words by linking arms as the national anthem was played before games on Sept. 24 and 25, and the Pittsburgh Steelers, Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans remained largely off-field for the anthem.

The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!

&mdash Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 25, 2017

The recent controversy over the national anthem began in 2016, when then-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick initially sat, and later switched to taking a knee, during the pre-game anthem to protest racial discrimination, especially at the hands of police.

With increased interest in the national anthem and its role at sporting events, we decided to take a closer look at some of its history.

While the Star-Spangled Banner only became the nation&rsquos official anthem in 1931, the lyrics date back to 1814, the anthem was played sporadically in the 1800s, several experts said.

The earliest rendition came at the opening of Union Grounds park in Brooklyn on May 15, 1862 , which was during the Civil War, said John Thorn, the historian for Major League Baseball. The first documented example from opening day occurred in Philadelphia on April 22, 1897.

Union Grounds, Brooklyn, 1865

A key turning point came during the 1918 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox.

That year&rsquos World Series was held during World War I, and "the public mood was sullen and anxious," Luke Cyphers and Ethan Trex wrote in ESPN The Magazine in 2011. "The war strained the economy and the workforce, including baseball's. The government began drafting major leaguers for military service that summer and ordered baseball to end the regular season by Labor Day."

The mood, however, perked up considerably when a brass band began playing the Star-Spangled Banner during the seventh-inning stretch of one game.

"The crowd, already standing, showed its first real signs of life all day, joining in a spontaneous sing-along, haltingly at first, then finishing with flair," Cyphers and Trex wrote. "The scene made such an impression that the New York Times opened its recap of the game not with a description of the action on the field but with an account of the impromptu singing."

The scene also made an impression on the two teams&rsquo front offices. The Cubs&rsquo management made sure the band played the anthem during the next two games as well, and attendance, which had been in a rut, increased. When the series moved to Boston&rsquos Fenway Park, officials moved the playing of the anthem to the pregame festivities, coupled with the introduction of wounded soldiers who had received free tickets," the authors wrote.

The anthem was played periodically in baseball after that, but it took until another war -- World War II -- before it was played before essentially every game.

Playing the national anthem before regular season games "was not universal in baseball until 1942 and the start of World War II, though some clubs started the practice in 1941," said Michael Teevan, a spokesman for Major League Baseball.

Since then, "the national anthem has been played before virtually every professional &mdash and many collegiate and high school &mdash baseball, football, basketball, hockey and soccer contests in this country," said Marc Leepson, author of Flag: An American Biography and What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, A Life.

In the period after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the anthem took on special meaning at sporting events, and some teams arranged pregame events with survivors and first responders. In some cases, a rendition of America the Beautiful was added, said Elliott J. Gorn, a Loyola University of Chicago historian and co-author of A Brief History of American Sports.

Singing the national anthem before National Football League games has been ongoing for "decades," said NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy.

One aspect of this history that has spawned some confusion in recent days concerns a change made in 2009.

Until that year, players in primetime games would remain inside their locker rooms while the anthem was sung, due to timing concerns for the television networks. After 2009, the players in primetime games have been on the field during the anthem, McCarthy said.

But this change only affected primetime games. For all other games -- typically held at 1 p.m. or 4 p.m. Eastern -- players had already been stationed on the field for the national anthem. So the 2009 change simply applied to primetime games the rules that had already been in place for daytime games.

Part of the confusion, McCarthy said, may be that television networks often haven&rsquot shown the national anthem being played.

In 1968, U.S. Olympic athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave a raised-fist "black power" salute on the medal stand as the Star-Spangled Banner was being played. They were thrown out of the Olympics. Four years later, U.S. Olympians Vince Matthews and Wayne Collett, who were also African-American, were barred from further competition when they were considered to have shown insufficient respect from the medal stand.

Some fans also found room to express their views during the anthem. "During the Vietnam era, it was not uncommon for fans -- not enormous numbers, but some -- to remain seated during the anthem," Gorn said.

In March 1996, the National Basketball Association suspended the Denver Nuggets&rsquo Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. A convert to Islam, Abdul-Rauf said he did not believe in standing for any nationalistic ideology, according to the New York Times.

As for baseball, Cassidy Lent, a reference librarian at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., said she was not aware of any protests beyond the one by Bruce Maxwell of the Oakland A's in the wake of Trump&rsquos comments.

A footnote: In his 1972 autobiography, I Never Had It Made, Jackie Robinson -- who broke baseball&rsquos color line in 1947 -- wrote, "As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag I know that I am a black man in a white world."

This notion gained attention on social media in the wake of Trump&rsquos comments and the NFL&rsquos reaction. One version we came across said the anthem "must be played prior to every NFL game, and all players must be on the sideline for the National Anthem," standing, facing the flag, helmets in left hands.

This language does not appear in the NFL Rule Book, as the post indicates. However, it is apparently included in a separate document called the "game operations manual." This document is not online, so we can&rsquot review it first-hand, but McCarthy, the NFL spokesman, said it is distributed by the league to all of its member teams.

While text circulating on social media would seem to suggest there will be consequences for protesting during the anthem, there is discretion involved -- and the NFL has repeatedly stated that it will not punish players for taking a knee during the anthem.

McCarthy told PolitiFact that "players are strongly encouraged, but not required, to stand during the national anthem." He has used essentially the same language in previous statements going back to 2016.

Another NFL spokesman, Joe Lockhart, said during a conference call with reporters on Sept. 25 that "there will be no discipline handed down this week." He added, "We also believe our players have a right to express themselves."

Short History of The Star Spangled Banner

The preserved flag resting on an angle with protective lighting at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

A s the sun broke the horizon on September 13, 1814, Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane gave the order for British naval ships to commence firing at Fort McHenry. Located in the Baltimore Harbor, Fort McHenry was one of the last lines of defense for Baltimore: if the fort was captured, then Baltimore would be as well. With Washington, D.C., burned just a month prior, the capture of Baltimore would mean that the just formed United States would lose two major coastal cities. These cities were financial and political strongholds, and, without them, Britain could claim victory for the entire war.

Francis Scott Key: Maryland lawyer and writer of the "The Star-Spangled Banner"

On a merchant ship in the harbor was British Prisoner Exchange Agent Colonel John Stuart Skinner and Georgetown lawyer Francis Scott Key. On September 5, Stuart and Key had sailed into the harbor to meet with Admiral George Cockburn to discuss the release of Dr. William Beanes. Beanes was a doctor, and a colleague of Key, who had refused to give food and drink to British soldiers who had happened upon his house in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. He was scheduled to be hanged. Stuart and Key successfully negotiated Beanes’s freedom. However, since they were by the British fleet in the harbor, and privy to the British’s positions and plans to attack Baltimore, the three men were unable to return to shore.

On September 12, the British landed their forces at North Point, a peninsula at the fork of the Patapsco River and the Chesapeake Bay to attempt a land attack on Baltimore. The British pushed on toward the city and were attacked at noon, resulting in the death of British Major General Robert Ross. Colonel Arthur Brooke took command and skirmishes continued that day. The Americans retreated to Baltimore and the British consolidated their forces.

With many American forces emerging in the night, the British decided to launch a naval attack on Fort McHenry commanded by Admiral Cochrane. Major George Armistead, future uncle to Confederate General Lewis Armistead in the Civil War, commanded the fort. For twenty-four hours, mortar shells and Congreve rockets were hurled at the fort. Over the harbor, there was a cloud of smoke that was only illuminated by the glow of rockets.

However, the British gunners had poor aim. Because of the American cannons in the fort and previously sunken merchant ships that Armistead had commanded to ring the entrance to Baltimore harbor, the British couldn’t get close to the Fort. At nightfall, Cochrane sent 1,200 of his men to the shore in an attempt to attack the fort from the rear. American forces met the incoming soldiers and impeded them from advancing.

The next morning, Armistead raised a thirty by forty-two-foot United States Flag over the fort. Customarily, this garrison flag was raised every morning at reveille, but after a night of fighting this action took on a new meaning. The British, equally fatigued after the long fight and running low on ammunition, noted that they could not overtake the fortifications of Fort McHenry. Beanes, Key, and Stuart were sent back to the Maryland shore and the British retreated and set off for New Orleans.

Illustration of the Battle of Fort McHenry

Throughout this battle, Key was in the harbor hearing cannon fire and the booms of explosives. After the hours of bombardment and the fear that the British could overtake the fort and head to Baltimore, Key awoke to a proud display of American patriotism and a symbol that they were not going to stop fighting. That morning he wrote notes for a future poem about this event. Later that week, he finished the poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry.” On September 20, the Baltimore Patriot published “Defence of Fort M’Henry.” Francis Scott Key’s brother-in-law set the poem to music, and the combined poem and music was published under the name “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

After it was published, “The Star-Spangled Banner” became one of the many patriotic songs sung throughout the country. After 1889, it accompanied the flag raisings by the Navy. President Woodrow Wilson adopted the song as a de facto “national anthem” in 1916 but did not codify this ruling. In 1929, “House Resolution 14” was presented to Congress to name “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the official national anthem to the United States. There were many objections to this resolution.

One objection was that the tune of the “Star-Spangled Banner” was taken from the song “To Anacreon to Heaven.” This song was the theme for the Society of Anacreon, which was active between 1766-1791. The Society of Anacreon was a gentleman’s club that meet monthly to listen to music of questionable tastes and to socialize. Ralph Tomlinson wrote the lyrics and John Stafford Smith composed the melody in 1788 and 1780 respectively. The song eluded to alcohol consumption and love in the last line of the first stanza, “I’ll instruct you like me to entwine the myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s wine.” Even though only the tune was used, some members still saw it risqué that the two songs could be intertwined.

Other objections include: the difficulty of the song to sing and play, the inability to dance or march to the song, and it was too military-centric. The resolution did not pass until it was reintroduced to Congress in 1930. It was officially adopted by law on March 3, 1931. Other songs that were possible contenders for the position as national anthem were “Hail, Columbia,” “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” and “America the Beautiful.”

Sheet Music of "The Star-Spangled Banner"

The flag itself was sewn by Mary Pickersgill. Major Armistead was assigned to command Fort McHenry in June 1813. He commissioned the Baltimore-based flag-maker to sew two flags, one that is 17 by 25 ft and one that is 30 by 42 ft. The flags were so large that she sewed them with her daughter, Caroline two nieces, Eliza Young and Margaret Young, and an indentured African American servant, Grace Wisher, on the floor of a nearby brewery. In addition, there were potentially other workers that helped with this behemoth project that have not been recorded. The larger of the two flags dwarfs the standard size of garrison flags today that measure 20 by 38 ft. As per the Second Flag Act that was ratified on January 13, 1794, there were fifteen red and white stripes and fifteen white stars in a field of blue on the flag. The additional two stripes represent Vermont and Kentucky, who entered the Union in 1791 and 1792 respectively. It wasn’t until April 4, 1818 with the Third Flag Act that the number of stripes were reduced back to thirteen and the number of stars on the flag equate to the number of states in the Union.

After the war and before his death in 1818, Major George Armistead, who was later promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, acquired the large flag. The flag was passed down within the family until Eben Appleton, Armistead’s grandson donated the flag to the Smithsonian Institute in 1912. Between Armistead’s acquisition of the flag and the Appleton’s donation, pieces of the flag had been cut off and sent to veterans, government officials, and other prominent figures. In 1914, Amelia Fowler, a flag-restorer, was hired by the Smithsonian to help stabilize the fragile flag while it was on display. Preservation was initiated again in 1981 to reduce dust on the flag and reduce the amount of light shining on the fabric. Those preservation efforts weren’t enough. In 1994, the flag was removed from the wall, so conservators could remove the linen backing that Fowler sewed and further remove harmful materials from the flag’s surface. A new climate and light controlled exhibit were created to house the flag and discuss its history.

Francis Scott Key wrote the “Star-Spangled Banner” as a joyous poem after he was relieved that the United States had preserved against British attack. Since then it has evolved into the national anthem for the United States and is played at official events, schools, and sporting events. This anthem is a means to bring Americans together to remember the United States perseverance in the face of adversity and as a stage that Americans can use to protest unjust policies.

When he announced his reasons for not standing during the "Star-Spangled Banner," San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick entered a decades-old debate over the song's straddling of politics and sport.

A number of teams and individual players have dropped the anthem, or refused to acknowledge it, since it became part of gameday routines in the early half of the 1900s. In just about every case, the moves sparked public backlash — and, in the end, tradition won.

The practice dates at least back to the Civil War era, when the "Star-Spangled Banner" — written a half-century earlier — first became part of athletic events.

The first documented example was in May 1862, when Brooklyn inaugurated its first professional baseball field. The "Star-Spangled Banner" was played during a pregame ceremony, and again "at intervals throughout the contest," the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported.

From NBC Sports: The Anthem

In the decades that followed, the song resurfaced at baseball and college football games, usually during times of war and social upheaval, according to Marc Ferris, author of "Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America's National Anthem."

The trend continued after Congress made the song the national anthem in 1931, and through World War II, when patriotic fervor, along with the development of modern public address systems, made the song part of the everyday routine, Ferris said.

By the 1970s, television and big-money sports turned the pre-game national anthem into an event unto itself, with popular musicians performing it to huge crowds, according to Ferris.

But as the song became standard, it also piqued on-field dissent. Some thought the repeated playing cheapened it, while others saw it as a stage to protest American racism and foreign policies.

Others simply couldn't be bothered to pay attention.

In 1970, a high school football player in Illinois named Forrest Byram refused to take off his helmet during the "Star-Spangled Banner" and was suspended. He quit the team.

Two years later, at the Olympics in Munich, American sprinters Wayne Collett and Vince Matthews chatted casually during the playing of the U.S. national anthem. They were banned from the games.

A few months later, members of the Eastern Michigan University track team warmed up as the song was played before a meet, and were disqualified. Soon after, New York track officials dropped the "Star-Spangled Banner" from one of its most prestigious events, questioning the song's relevance to sports. They quickly reversed course.

Other teams have tinkered with the national anthem, dropping it from all but special events, but have caved to public complaint.

In 1996, rising-star Denver Nuggets point guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf — a recent convert to Islam formerly known as Chris Jackson — stopped standing for the national anthem, an act of defiance that wasn't even noticed publicly for months.

When it was finally noticed, the move sparked public outrage and drew a suspension from the NBA, and Abdul-Rauf ultimately agreed to a comprise in which he prayed during the song instead. He was traded to the Sacramento Kings when the season was over and was out of the NBA by 2001, although his career continued internationally until 2011.

In 2003, Toni Smith, captain of the Manhattanville College women's basketball team, began turning her back during the song to protest American inequalities and the coming war in Iraq. Her quiet protest drew attention only after a military veteran confronted her with a flag, and she sparked a national debate over free speech and patriotism.

Given this history, it only makes sense that Kaepernick has made his stand, Ferris said.

"The symbols of the country are always going to elicit patriotic and anti-patriotic feelings," he said. "I just hope people will reflect and think about it instead of shouting at each other."

Jon Schuppe writes about crime, justice and related matters for NBC News.

Op-Ed: Mark Cuban was right the first time. We should stop singing the national anthem at ballgames

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered many behaviors in American life. Among them, for a while: the way the Dallas Mavericks opened their home games. Owner Mark Cuban ended the practice of playing the national anthem in the mostly empty arena. Cuban backtracked this week — after a sports website wrote about his decision and the NBA stepped in — which is too bad. The ban should have become permanent.

We’re way too used to a practice that doesn’t make much sense: At athletic events, the assembled congregation rises, the flag waves and everyone either stands in rapt silence or starts in on “Oh say can you see” — singing a tune that, because of its range, is all but unmanageable by untrained voices.

The origins of a “national anthem” probably date to the singing of “La Marseillaise” late in the 18th century to rally citizens in France to repulse the invasion of the Prussians and the Austrians. The lyrics for “The Star-Spangled Banner” come from a poem, “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” written by Francis Scott Key after witnessing the bombardment of the fort by the British during the War of 1812. Paradoxically, the words were set to the music of a popular English song, written by John Stafford Smith, and one wag suggested that British troops fled in horror when they heard Americans sing it. “The Star-Spangled Banner” was designated the national anthem by congressional resolution on March 3, 1931.

But why is the anthem mandatory at sporting events and not at, say, rock concerts? Apparently, in the early decades of the 20th century sporting events were marred by drunkenness and hooliganism, and team owners believed that if they could cloak the games in nationalism it would provide at least a measure of respectability. “The Star-Spangled Banner” was sung during the seventh inning of Game 1 of the 1918 World Series, a year and a half into the Great War. Major League Baseball used it intermittently after World War I, and following World War II, the commissioner of the National Football League, Elmer Layden, required it for NFL games.

As sociologists say, once a precedent, twice a tradition that is, until someone calls it into question or, in the case of this particular practice, tries to rejig the rote exercise into a higher expression of patriotism.

José Feliciano, the Puerto Rico-born singer and guitarist, may have opened the door with his bluesy rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in Detroit before Game 5 of the 1968 World Series between the Tigers and the St. Louis Cardinals. A week later, John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their black-gloved fists during the national anthem on the awards podium at the Mexico City Olympics. They wore black socks and no shoes to protest the persistence of poverty among African Americans.

More recently came quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s Black Lives Matter decision to kneel when the singing started at San Francisco 49ers games. Then-President Trump suggested that athletes who refuse to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner” should be fired, and he made a show of singing it at at least one gathering (he appeared not to know all of the words).

Kaepernick more or less was fired. He had led his team to the Super Bowl in 2013, but he has not played professional football since the 2016 season. You’d think Kaepernick’s stance was a sacrilege. In an age when religiosity is falling in the United States, sports may be filling the gap.

Some years ago, I made my only visit to Yankee Stadium. The game was a blowout, and we decided to leave early, but we were blocked on the way out by yellow-shirted security guards with their arms extended, gripping chains. We had committed the unpardonable sin of trying to leave the stadium during the singing of “God Bless America.”

How is that not a species of fascism?

With a somewhat terse statement Wednesday, Cuban and the NBA brought the Mavericks back into the fold. “With the NBA now in the process of welcoming fans back into their arenas,” the Mavericks would once again honor the national anthem tradition.

I’d say that makes as much sense as singing the song while we wait our turn at the post office or before sitting down at the blackjack table. Or outside big-box stores on Black Friday. Wouldn’t that be a good occasion for belting out “The Star-Spangled Banner”? After 9/11, let’s recall, President George W. Bush suggested that the highest form of patriotism was to go shopping.

Perhaps only when we sing the national anthem in line at Walmart will we appreciate the emptiness of the ritual, especially at a time when not all Americans experience this nation as the land of the free.

Randall Balmer, professor of religion at Dartmouth, is the author of more than a dozen books, including “Solemn Reverence: The Separation of Church and State in American Life.”

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1918 World Series started the U.S. love affair with national anthem

On Tuesday afternoon, the crowd at Wrigley Field will be asked to stand and "gentlemen" reminded to remove their caps for the playing of "The Star Spangled Banner." Fans who can recite the words as easily as the alphabet will sing or listen to the story of a flag that continued to wave throughout one of the most famous battles in American history.

What they may not know is that Francis Scott Key, apparently better at lyrics than melody, put his description of the battle of Fort McHenry to an old English tune that had a lot less to do with patriotism than it did with booze and women. Or that this year marks the 100th season since the song was played for the first time at a World Series game — an event that helped cement it in the national consciousness and become the national anthem that is now simply assumed to be part of game day in American sports, from Little League to the Super Bowl to medal ceremonies at the Olympics.

"Certainly the outpouring of sentiment, enthusiasm, and patriotism at the 1918 World Series went a long way to making the (song) the national anthem," said John Thorn, Major League Baseball's official historian.

On September 5, 1918, newspapers were dominated by news of World War I, including the latest American dead. In Chicago, one of the headlines read, "Chicagoans on the List," and it was a particularly harrowing moment in the city for another reason: Someone, possibly self-proclaimed anarchists and labor activists, had the day before tossed a bomb into a downtown federal building and post office, killing four people and injuring dozens more.

The World Series was in town, with the Cubs hosting Babe Ruth and the Boston Red Sox. The Chicago games were played at Comiskey Park, the home of the White Sox, instead of their new home at Wrigley Field, what was called Weegham Park at the time, because it held more fans. But in a city jittery over the bombing and weary from the war, Game 1 that day attracted fewer than 20,000 fans, the smallest World Series crowd in years.

When they got there, they didn't make much noise, though that could have had something to do with the 1-0 masterpiece Ruth was pitching — yes, pitching — for the Red Sox.

The National Anthem

“The Star-Spangled Banner,” a song based on a poem by Francis Scott Key, was inspired by the American flag during the War of 1812. It became the United States’ national anthem through the efforts of Representative John Linthicum of Maryland. Linthicum introduced his bill in the House of Representatives in 1929. Bolstered by petitions, letters, and telegrams from around the country, he pressed for its passage, saying that an anthem would be an expression of patriotism. In 1931 Congress officially designated the song as the national anthem.

O say does that star spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

When Whitney Hit The High Note

This is 1991. Before six people died in the World Trade Center bombing. Before 168 died in Oklahoma City. This is before 111 individuals were injured by a bomb made of nails and screws at the Atlanta Olympics. Before backpacks stuffed with pressure cookers and ball bearings blew limbs from people at the Boston Marathon.

This is the tippy-top of '91. Way before Connecticut elementary school classrooms in Newtown were strewn with bullets. Before a Colorado theater was tear-gassed and shot up as The Dark Knight Rises began. Before 18 people were shot in an Arizona parking lot, along with a congresswoman who took a bullet in the back of the head. You have to understand. This is before a young married couple in combat gear killed 14 at a holiday party in San Bernardino.

This is a generation ago. A full decade before the United States of America came to a brief but full stop -- 2,977 people dead and more than 6,000 injured in three states. This was before three New York firefighters raised a star-spangled banner amid the sooty rubble of ground zero. In 1991, ground zero was just downtown Manhattan. If you were alive -- if you were over the age of 5 -- you must make yourself remember the time. In 1991, people are jittery, but no one stands in line in bare feet at airports. There are no fingerprint scanners at ballparks.

This is, like, pre-everything. There's no Facebook -- barely a decent chat room to flirt in. The Berlin Wall? Buzz-sawed, climbed over and kicked through. Mandela is free, and Margaret Thatcher is out. This is one-way pager, peak Gen X quarter-life crisis time -- and it wasn't called a quarter-life crisis back then. North and Saint West's late grandfather had not yet read his friend's letter to the world: "Don't feel sorry for me," attorney Robert Kardashian said to flashing bulbs. "Please think of the real O.J. [Simpson] and not this lost person." This is the year Mae Jemison preps for the Endeavour, Michael Jordan is ascendant and In Living Color and Twin Peaks stamp the kids who make prestige TV glow in 2016. Beyonce is in elementary school. Steph and Seth Curry are in a Charlotte playpen. Barack Obama is the first black president -- of Harvard Law Review. The (pre)cursors are blinking.

More ESPN Mag

"This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait," President George H.W. Bush says in August 1990, and by the dawn's early light of Jan. 17, 1991, a coalition of countries led by the United States drops real bombs on real people and real places in real time on four networks. This was the first Gulf War. There are no color-coded threat level advisory posters on airport walls, but the State Department and the Secret Service agree: The possibility of a terror attack is high, and Super Bowl XXV -- the Giants vs. the Bills, scheduled just 10 days later -- is a soft and glaring bull's-eye.

The Goodyear blimp? Grounded. A Blackhawk patrols instead. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue's annual Super Gala gala? Canceled. Concrete bunkers gird the parking lot of old Tampa Stadium, and a 6-foot-high chain-link rises quickly behind that. Canines sniff chassis, and ushers wave metal detectors. SWAT teams walk the stadium roof with machine guns. Alternate dates, due to a fear of mass casualties, are considered. For a Super Bowl.

"[It] was the shape of things to come," former defensive back Everson Walls recalled in 2013 for USA Today. "The security was incredible. I think that's the first time they checked bags and really were concerned about terrorist threats."

It was tense. "Players were discussing privately if there would be a draft," former Giants tight end Howard Cross said last year in the New York Post. "And whether our younger brothers might be drafted."

There is a ghost game hovering too -- the one played two days after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. It is known as the NFL's "mourning game" and opened with a lone bugler playing taps. Pete Rozelle was ravaged in the media for going through with it. He'd struggled with the decision, and it haunted him his whole career. But Commissioner Tagliabue will not have the regrets of his predecessor. Tagliabue -- a Jersey City basketball-playing attorney who'd represented the league against the USFL -- arrived at Super Bowl XXV in a flak jacket. And he had Whitney Elizabeth Houston.

HOUSTON WAS 27 when she sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Super Bowl XXV. She was already the first artist in history to have seven consecutive singles go to No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100 pop chart. This Whitney data, of course, does not yet include the zeniths and descents of the second half of her recording career. It doesn't include the impact she made on-screen in (and on the soundtracks of) 1992's The Bodyguard, 1995's Waiting to Exhale and 1996's The Preacher's Wife. It doesn't quantify, because there is no quantifying, the influence she continues to have on Beyonce Knowles Carter, Adele Adkins, Alicia Keys, Lady Gaga and other pop singers who rose in her wake. It can't articulate the profound relief she granted black teens in the mid-1980s. Just the sight of her, onstage, on MTV, on an album cover -- Houston was proof of life. It became easier for black girls in particular to flex, to breathe -- to revel in visibility and possibility.

Houston wanted more than mainstream pop success. She wanted mainstream pop equality. "Nobody," she told Rolling Stone in 1993, "makes me do anything I don't want to do." And that had become the definition of her relationship with the music business. She'd come by her ambition via nature and nurture and aspired to a level pop playing field that had been systematically denied her forebears. She was earwitness to artists who'd thrashed and thrived in an intricately segregated music industry -- not the least of whom was her own mother, Emily "Cissy" Houston, leader of the pop-gospel Sweet Inspirations, who sang behind Jimi Hendrix, Mahalia Jackson, Bette Midler, Linda Ronstadt, Aretha Franklin and more. Whitney was 6 when the Inspirations were singing backup for Elvis Presley in Las Vegas. "[She] taught me how to sing," Houston said in 1996. "Taught me . where it comes from. How to control it. How to command it. She sacrificed and taught me everything that she knew."

“[It] was the shape of things to come. The security was incredible.”

- former defensive back Everson Walls in 2013

Whitney's distant cousin is pioneering operatic soprano Leontyne Price -- one of the first black singers to earn global acclaim in an art form still using yellow- and blackface in 2016. Whitney's first cousin is Dionne Warwick, who in partnership with Burt Bacharach (and in stride with Nancy Wilson) crystallized the acutely talented, crisply enunciated, pretty and sexually hushed black female pop star prototype that Whitney, for the first few years of her career, clicked right into. The fashion model's body type. The disciplined tamping down of racial and class signifiers. The gleam in her eyes and smile that said dreams are real.

You have to remember. She practiced for Super Bowl XXV. In a demure fur hat and with a case of nerves, Houston sang the national anthem at a Nets-Lakers game in New Jersey early in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's 1988-89 retirement season. And she was in even better form for a February 1989 performance of "One Moment in Time," a song she recorded for the 1988 Summer Olympics Album. Houston wasn't featured in the video for the worldwide hit, but onstage at the 1989 Grammys, she made her ownership of the song clear.

On a large screen were slow-motion shots of triumph -- doves fly, FloJo receives a medal and Greg Louganis is poised to back-flip. The screen rose as Houston, in a white gown, stepped out with aplomb. There was a tiny cross at the base of her throat and a full orchestra in shadow behind her. "You're a winner," she belted, "for a lifetime." And then she allowed herself the tiniest of kicks -- of church -- and a step forward. And as she sang the words "I will be free," three times in a row, in three different ways, the audience leapt to its feet.

You have to understand. Key to American blues is the notion that by performing them and by experiencing them being performed, one can escape them. "I will be free," sang this black American woman to a mostly white, tucked-in-tuxes audience attending an event at which black achievement has been and remains segregated and minimized. This is our most familiar pop dance. This is white American affluence being comforted by the performance of black freedom -- and so, feeling forgiven. The polished intonations. The buffed exertion. The testimony. This is the conflation of mass sport and mass music. This is bodies and souls at work. This -- one of America's most influential creations and biggest imports -- is the uplift of big blues.

In 1991, people were jittery, but stadium security had yet to reach the level it would in 2016. Al Messerschmidt/AP Images

JIM STEEG WAS, for over 25 years, in charge of the Super Bowl for the NFL. Four years ago, he recalled the lead-up to XXV's opening ceremonies for SportsBusinessDaily.com: "In early January . our coordinator of Super Bowl pregame activities Bob Best . produced a recording of the Florida Orchestra for national anthem producer Rickey Minor. . A week later, Minor flew to Los Angeles to have Whitney record the vocal track. Amazingly . it was done in one take."

Yes -- Whitney Houston's version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" was prerecorded. "There's no way to rehearse the sound of the crowd . coming at you," Minor said years later. "You don't know where the first note begins."

The NFL had no qualms about the song being prerecorded, even if Houston would be criticized for it. The NFL's issue was with the meter. "The Star-Spangled Banner" is written in 3/4 time -- not quite brisk, but waltzy. Houston and vocal arranger Minor, as well as bassist-arranger John L. Clayton, changed it to 4/4, slowing it down. "All was in place for what many of us thought would be one of the greatest versions of the national anthem ever performed," Steeg said.

"Then on Jan. 17," as Steeg further recalled it, "senior executives with the NFL asked to hear the recording. A tape was overnighted to Buffalo, where the AFC championship game was played. The next day I was told the version was viewed as too slow and difficult to sing along with. Could I ask to have it redone." Perhaps the NFL was afraid there would be discontent in the stands, as there had been when Jose Feliciano dared to find himself and the times in the anthem before Game 5 of the 1968 World Series. So Steeg called John Houston, Whitney's father and her manager at the time. "The conversation was brief," Steeg said. "There would be no rerecording."

You have to understand: By slowing it down, Team Houston and the Florida Orchestra -- under the direction of Chinese conductor Jahja Ling -- not only increased the national anthem's level of technical difficulty, they amplified its soul. They made it the blues.

"And now, to honor America, especially the brave men and women serving our nation in the Persian Gulf and throughout the world, please join in the singing of our national anthem. The anthem will be followed by a flyover of F-16 jets from the 56th Tactical Training Wing at MacDill Air Force Base and will be performed by the Florida Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Jahja Ling and sung by Grammy Award winner Whitney Houston."

Houston sang live -- into a dead mic. Her performance was, indeed, prerecorded. "There's no way to rehearse the sound of the crowd . coming at you," national anthem producer Rickey Minor said years later. Gin Ellis/Getty Images

YOU HAVE TO remember.

It's a fine warm winter night in Tampa.

The Giants' own Faultless Frank is on the ABC Super Bowl team. Every Hall of Fame hair is in place, and there are no signs of the brain trauma that will later plague him. Al Michaels has not yet uttered the phrase "wide right." Madonna's "Justify My Love" and Janet Jackson's "Love Will Never Do (Without You)" are battling on terrestrial radio, and terrestrial radio is the ruling class. There's no streaming. No YouTube. The iPod is 10 years away. Want to party? Hit the creaky shuffle on your CD player. At Tampa Stadium, the pregame jam is Snap's "The Power": It's gettin' / It's gettin' / It's gettin' kinda hectic.

It is, in fact. The ESPN team is broadcasting from outside the stadium. As Andrea Kremer reports at the time, "Every single vehicle within 200 feet of the stadium is completely searched. There will be a large, well-rehearsed team in place at Tampa Stadium. And it isn't just the Bills and the Giants but rather the security forces designed to safeguard the Super Bowl event while trying not to convey undue alarm to fans, or turn the stadium into an armed camp."

“All was in place for what many of us thought would be one of the greatest versions of the national anthem ever performed.”

But there are more than 1,700 security professionals on the grounds. And if it seems every person is waving a tiny U.S. flag, that's because a tiny U.S. flag has been placed on every seat. The field is a kaleidoscope of honor guard uniforms and team uniforms and kids doing a red, white and blue card stunt. Central is the entire Florida Orchestra -- standing in full dress, signaling serious and formal.

Then Whitney Houston steps onto a platform -- it looks to be the size of a card table -- in a loose white tracksuit with mild red and blue accents. She has on white Nike Cortezes with a red swoosh. No heels in which to step daintily, and definitely not a gown. Her hair is held back by a pretty but plain ivory bandanna -- there are no wisps blowing onto her face. No visible earplugs to take away from the naturalness of the moment. Everything is arranged to convey casual confidence.

Here we begin. Snare drums so crisp. Bass drum so bold. Houston holds the mic stand for a moment but then clasps her hands behind her back -- it reads as clearly as a military at-ease. Her stance says: We came to play. Says, in the parlance of the 'hood, and on behalf of her country: Don't start none, won't be none. All we have to do is relax, and we're all going to win.

Like the best heroes, Whitney -- the black girl from Jersey who worked her way to global stardom, made history and died early from the weight of it -- makes bravery look easy. Although the stadium hears the prerecorded version, she sings live into a dead mic. The image of her singing is interspersed with faces of the fans, of the soldiers at attention and of the U.S. flag and flags of the wartime coalition countries blowing in the breeze. She is calmly joyful -- cool, actually, and free of fear. And when she arrives at Oh, say [cymbal] does our star- [cymbal] spangled banner yet wave, she moves to lift the crowd. It's a question. It's always been a question. And she sings it like an answer. People were weeping in the stands, weeping in their homes. The song itself became a top-20 pop hit. Folks called in and requested Whitney Houston's national anthem on the radio. The version NFL executives thought might be too slow, people sang along to as they drove down the street.

Super Bowl XXV was the beginning of a brand relationship that would eventually exist between the NFL and the armed forces. USA TODAY Sports

SUPER BOWL XXV is defined as much by the launch of Desert Storm and Security Nation and by Whitney Houston as by the game itself. That day was the start of a branding relationship between the armed forces and the NFL that has grown vinelike around a state of perpetual war.

Houston is of course gone now, but she remains the ghost in the machine -- memorialized, memed, GIFed and in many quarters damn near prayed to. We have her massive ballads, and her bad reality TV, but her "Star-Spangled Banner" is much the reason for Houston's continued presence -- she boldly interpolated our anthem and sang it as well as it will ever be sung. Remember? When her version was rereleased in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- Houston gave her fees to charity -- she roused and comforted a nation again. It was the last top-10 hit of her career.

Most singers want out of that song. Most reach awkwardly for one note or another, or miss it altogether. It's not just that the song is a difficult one. It's difficult in front of people who want to feel the pride in the storybook words. They want to wave their ball caps and whoop in the pause after O'er the land of the free. They want to be landlords in the home of the brave. Whitney's version made it all absolute, for a moment. Her arms were wide and reaching slightly up at the end, a pose familiar to many Americans, across races. Her head was back, as one's can be when victorious, and as one's can be when asking for and ecstatically receiving the glory of God.

Bright bulbs flashed and popped off behind her. Floodlights intersected with the hazy Florida sunshine and created stairways to heaven. You could almost walk up there. To where the four war jets are.

How Sports Met 'The Star-Spangled Banner'

At Florida's Tampa Stadium in 1991, Whitney Houston delivered an iconic performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" to kick off Super Bowl XXV.

This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action. Find more at NPR.org/Anthem.

This week marked one of the biggest dates on the American sports calendar: the start of a new NFL regular season, with the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles hosting the Atlanta Falcons. But there was a third player in the game, too — a musical one.

The national anthem, once again, is the focus of attention. Since 2016, the anthem has served as a platform for protest with some NFL players, and a symbol of division in the country. The controversy ramped up over Labor Day weekend with the revelation that Nike has hired original NFL protester Colin Kaepernick for a new campaign marking the 30th anniversary of the apparel company's "Just Do It" slogan. But it's merely the latest chapter in a more than 150-year connection between "The Star-Spangled Banner" and sports, one both powerful and controversial.

O say can you see by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?

When 16-year-old McKenna Howard sang the national anthem at the recent Little League Softball World Series in Portland, Ore., her mother, Amy, was watching and listening closely from her bench seat in the stands. Amy Howard is a music and voice teacher from Wheelersburg, Ohio, who ends her classes with the song. She has performed it herself at Cincinnati Reds games and other sporting events. But for all her knowledge about and experience with "The Star-Spangled Banner," she is not sure about that historical connection between the song and sports.

"I've never thought about why we do it," Howard says. "I like that we do it. It's good to stop and pause and remember why we are free to do what we're free to do."

Sixteen-year-old McKenna Howard and her mother, Amy, at the Little League Softball World Series in Portland, Ore. this August. McKenna sang the national anthem at the event. Tom Goldman/NPR hide caption

Pausing for patriotism before the game has been a tradition forever, it seems. Anthem expert Mark Clague is one of the few who can identify when forever began. "The first time we have 'The Star-Spangled Banner' played for any type of sporting event," says Clague, "is actually May 15, 1862, in Brooklyn, N.Y."

Clague is a University of Michigan musicology professor who has spent a lot of his adult life learning everything he can about "The Star-Spangled Banner. The seed was planted when he was a kid. "1976, the American bicentennial, was my 10th birthday," Clague says. "I just really got into the flags and decorating my bike and the neighborhood parades and the tricorner hats and all of that."

"The Star-Spangled Banner [tied together] all of that." It was born in 1814, when Francis Scott Key put words to a well-known melody. Forty-eight years later, on that May day in Brooklyn, the song first met up with sports, at the dedication of a new baseball field.

"They hire a band because it's a big celebration," Clague says. "When you have live music in 1862, during the Civil War, you're going to play patriotic songs. So they play 'The Star-Spangled Banner,' sort of coincidentally. It's not part of a ritual [it's] not played to start the game."

Clague says the song was played at baseball games throughout the late 19th century — but only for opening day. It would take 50-plus years, and another war, for the anthem to become even more intertwined with sports.

Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?

The 1918 World Series was not the first series to feature the anthem, but it was one of the most memorable. Babe Ruth played for Boston then, and the Red Sox were in Chicago taking on the Cubs for the championship. The crowd was flat: The Cubs weren't playing well, the weather was crummy — and, at a much more significant level, World War I still raged.

During the seventh-inning stretch, the band struck up the anthem. "And one of the players on the field, who's in the Navy, just sort of snaps to attention," Clague says.

"I even read some accounts where players marched military-style with their bats over their shoulders," says researcher Sheryl Kaskowitz, author of the book God Bless America: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song. "It really was seen as an important acknowledgment of the war."

According to Clague, "the crowd responded [to the anthem]. It gets written up in the newspaper as this amazing moment that brings the stadium back to life at a time of despair, both sporting-wise and for the country. And the legend is, that inspires 'The Star-Spangled Banner' to be played at the next game and then back in Boston and then returns to Chicago. And becomes the thing from then on out."

Twenty years on from that World Series moment, the song was a regular occurrence — not just in baseball, but at hockey and football games as well. Its spread was helped along in the 1920s by the increased use of public address systems, and fueled by surging patriotism in the run-up to the U.S. entering World War II.

"The Star-Spangled Banner" became the country's official anthem in 1931. During those prewar years, Americans, who loved to go to the movies, got to know the song in newsreels that ran before the feature film. Superimposing the words over images of fighter planes in formation and charging soldiers, the spots helped solidify the anthem as an expression of military glory.

Away from the theaters, the song was a natural fit at sporting events, with its celebration of heroism and the musical athleticism needed to belt out the song's highs and lows.

"The incredible leap it takes to pull in a touchdown catch or to grab a grounder and turn a double play," says Clague, "has a kind of analog to those high notes in 'The Star-Spangled Banner.' "

And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there

As the song spread post-World War II, it became something people expected, and event insisted upon. If a team, a club stops playing the anthem, "somebody complains," Clague says. "It became a kind of obligatory, essential community need to have 'The Star-Spangled Banner' played at every sporting event, to the point where it became a focus of the game."

But not for everyone. The song's warlike lyrics didn't appeal to institutions like Goshen College in Indiana, a Mennonite school with pacifist ideals, which did not adopt "The Star-Spangled Banner" as a sporting tradition. (In 2011, after some debate, the school settled on the more peaceable "America the Beautiful" as its pregame song.)

In arenas where the anthem rang out, though, there were memorable renditions — from Whitney Houston at the 1991 Super Bowl to Marvin Gaye at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game.

Oh say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Of course, the anthem has been a battleground for dissent, too. "For this to be, indeed, the land of the free and the home of the brave," Dr. Harry Edwards says, "we would have to have arrived at that state of perfection that does not at this point exist."

Edwards has been on those front lines for 50 years — as an athlete, sociology professor and active participant in the civil rights movement. His experience spans from the 1968 Mexico City Olympic protest during the anthem, mounted by track and field medal winners John Carlos and Tommie Smith, to his current roles as a sports consultant to the NFL and adviser to Kaepernick. The anthem, he says, always has been a powerful platform for protest.

"The national anthem is about America," Edwards says. "It is symbolic of that aspiration for e pluribus unum — one out of the many. So the anthem becomes a forum to demonstrate against the contradictions to those professed aspirations."

While the NFL and its players union work on a resolution to the debate, Edwards says he has suggested the league consider adding another anthem to the pregame — "Lift Every Voice and Sing," commonly called the black national anthem — as a next step. He says he hasn't heard back.

American Anthem

Till Victory Is Won: The Staying Power Of 'Lift Every Voice And Sing'

Meanwhile, as another NFL season begins, the nation continues to wrestle with what the sports protests mean. Disloyalty to the flag, the military, the country? Or a true expression of freedom and hope that the United States can be better?

This is where anthem expert Clague reminds us about, of all things, punctuation. In writing his lyrics for "The Star-Spangled Banner," Key ended the first and most famous verse — "O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?" — with a question mark.

"It's not an exclamation mark," Clague says. "It's not a period. It's not an ending. It's a question that needs an answer."

Our reply, he says — to the song as well as to the protests — tells us a lot about who we are, and what it means to love a country and to be united.

Daoud Tyler-Ameen contributed to the digital version of this story.

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