Athletics Without Anthems?

[To listen to the audio version, click here: Veterans Day:Anthem]

On Veterans Day, we generally honor our Veterans.  It’s a good idea, for lots of reasons: they served our country, often in unpleasant places, and in great danger, to keep the worst of the world away from our homeland.

My grandfather was a New York dentist who volunteered at age 39 to hop on a ship in the Pacific during World War II.  My dad graduated from medical school, then enlisted in the U.S. Army, which sent him and his new bride to Fulda, Germany, to guard the border.  It was an unconventional decision, but he’s always said it was one of his best.

“I earned more money than I ever had,” he often jokes, though that wasn’t hard to do for a recent medical school graduate.  “People had to do what I said.  And I never got shot at.”  My parents also made lifelong friends, and still travel every year to see them at reunions.

I grew up hearing Dad say things like, “Smart to be seen in Army green!”  And “Three meals a day, and – “ well, I’m stopping there.  (If you know that one, you know why.)

On Veterans Day, I’ve gotten into the habit of calling my old man to thank him for his service.  But this year, the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League spent Veterans Day telling its 183 member high school teams to stop performing the national anthem before their games.

The league commissioner, Ed Sam, was quick to explain, “It’s not that we’re not patriotic.  That’s the furthest from the truth.”

I actually believe him.  They’re not unpatriotic.  They’re amazingly stupid.

The reason behind the decision was money.  Most teams have to pay for their ice time, which Sam said costs up to 300 dollars an hour.

I’ve coached high school hockey, and that seems high to me.  But even at that rate, unless they’re playing Whitney Houston’s version, the national anthem takes about two minutes – or ten bucks of ice time.

What do they get for that ten bucks?  They get to join some of their best friends and complete strangers, singing a song that ends with the ringing words, “O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.”

That’s not a bad deal, it seems to me.

“The Star-Spangled Banner” didn’t become our national anthem until 1931 – when we needed it most.  It spread through baseball, then other sports.

We Americans don’t do much together anymore.  We watch different news programs, live in different neighborhoods, and go to different schools.  But we do this together, every week, without taking sides, or trying to determine whose flag pin is bigger — as if some of us are real Americans, and others aren’t.  My dad and I don’t always agree on politics, but we’ve always agreed on this.

When I coached, we decided to make a quiet statement during the national anthem by standing ram-rod straight on the blue line, and not moving a muscle until one beat after the song ended.  This made such an impression on the players’ parents, they took hundreds pictures of their sons in perfect formation.  The opponents’ parents would send me letters, praising us for the respect we showed the flag.  It became such a central part of our identity that our seniors took it upon themselves to make sure the freshmen did it right.

We rely on the national anthem during our toughest times.  I’ll never forget the national anthems that followed 9/11 – from Yankee Stadium, to our rink.  That fall, it was our seniors who asked me to add an American flag to our uniforms.

Seeing them standing on our blue line, in a perfect row, I was immensely proud of them.  If those 17-year olds are the future, I thought, we’re going to be fine.  Well, those 17-year olds are 27 now – and I was right.  We’re in good hands.

So if the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League can’t afford the ten bucks a game it costs to sing our national anthem together – which is more important than the game that follows — they could shorten their warm ups or player introductions, or just pass the hat.  I’m pretty confident that at any rink in America, you’d have no problem collecting ten bucks for that.

I’d be happy to kick in the first Hamilton.

And my dad will kick in the second.

* * * * *

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Friday night, Dan Chace’s documentary, “PERSERVERENCE: The Story of Dr. Billy Taylor,” premiers at the Michigan Theater at 7:30 and 9:55.  It’s received excellent reviews, and is about an hour long, followed by a question-and-answer session with Dan and Dr. Taylor.  For information and tickets, please go to,

Radio stuff: On Friday mornings, these commentaries run on Michigan Radio at 8:50, and a few minutes later,  I join Sam Webb and Ira Weintraub LIVE at 9:05 on WTKA.  And on Sunday mornings, from the start of football season to the end of March Madness, I co-host “Off the Field” with the legendary Jamie Morris from 10-11 a.m.  And yes, there will be a quiz, so “stop what you’re doing, and listen!”

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5 comments Leave a comment  

  • BJ Alpern November 16, 2012 at 8:25 am

    A thank you to all of our vets, who never get thanked enough for their service and sacrifice. 1991 NHL All Star game is Chicago. Wayne Messmer. The most memorable Star Spangled Banner I’ve ever witnessed. Still get chills and brings tears remembering.

  • Josh Reyher November 16, 2012 at 8:46 am

    I will be happy to chip in the 3rd!

    • Nick Standiford November 16, 2012 at 2:18 pm

      And me the fourth!

  • Jerry Kolins November 16, 2012 at 9:25 pm

    Your writing provides the spiritual component I need in November and December. Keep up the good work. I may be saved.

  • Phil Hemenway November 17, 2012 at 8:53 am

    Hi John, I though there was a law about having the anthem at sporting events?, perhaps only larger venues.

    Anyways, Please count my Hamilton in among the others.

    Best Regards,


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