So it's hockey playoff time again, and if you're a Canadian like me who grew up playing the game and watching the playoffs like a fiend every spring, it's an exciting time. Especially the first round. Eight series happening at once, with live updates constantly coming in from other games ("let's see what's happening in Pittsburgh Jim"), and plenty of sudden death overtime, one of the greatest moments in sports. And there's nothing better than when the game you were watching finishes, and the broadcast joins another later game still in progress. Keep it comin. Everybody's playing at their highest level, emotions are high, stakes are high, elbows are high, and every once in a while the gloves fly off in the heat of battle and a couple of guys try and pound each other's faces to a pulp. Ahhh, it's glorious.
The day before the playoffs began the Vancouver Sun posted a question on their Facebook page about the relevance of national anthems before hockey games. "Should we still be doing this?" they asked. "Is it time for the national anthems to go?". The first few commenters said get rid of them (which is a view I'll partially defend in a moment). So as I scrolled down the comments I thought that this was going to be a whitewash, people were ready to let the anthems go. But then boom, like a mid-ice hit you didn't see coming, an explosion of support for the anthems erupted. When I left the thread it was at a hundred comments and 98% were in vehement defense of the anthems. I was surprised by this outpouring. People are apparently quite attached to these anthems.
And I can understand this. One of my deepest, most vivid memories as a kid was singing the national anthem in my elementary school gym with the whole school in attendance. There was something so emotional about this collective experience. And I used to pretend in my little imagination that I was standing out there on the blue line, getting ready to play the big game. I'd even move my feet back and forth a little bit, like the players often did as they stood there on the ice. Later, when I would attend live NHL hockey games, I was thrilled by the electric spectacle of making a ruckus in unison with 18,000 other people.
And this collective aspect is surely one of the reasons we love singing the national anthems before the game. As professor Robert Harrison notes in his Entitled Opinions podcast on Crowds, "We don't go to sports shows for nothing. It's in order to feel that sense of energy that can only come from the density of numbers". The philosophers Hubert Dreyfuss and Sean Kelly made a similar point in their recent book All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classsics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, going so far as to compare collective experience at sporting events with religious experience, and arguing that sports has now "risen up to fill a spiritual void". Here's NY Times columnist David Brooks in his review of the book:
Spiritually unmoored, many people nonetheless experience intense elevation during the magical moments that sport often affords. Dreyfus and Kelly mention the mood that swept through the crowd at Yankee Stadium when Lou Gehrig delivered his “Luckiest Man Alive” speech, or the mood that swept through Wimbledon as Roger Federer completed one of his greatest matches. The most real things in life, they write, well up and take us over. They call this experience “whooshing up.” We get whooshed up at a sports arena, at a political rally or even at magical moments while woodworking or walking through nature.
Alright, so we love the 'whoosing' of the collective event. I agree, it's marvelous, and not only in that setting. I'll never forget singing along with 16,000 other people to Pearl Jam's Even Flow, like one giant, heaving throat. What a powerful and beatific thing. So what's wrong with singing the national anthems together then? Well, here's my two arguments against it (and then I'll suggest a possible solution). First of all, the players in the league have become so international by this point, that it seams kind of weird watching them stand there and listen to this foreign national anthem. It seems odd and out of place, anachronistic even.
And secondly, this spectacle of the national anthem promotes a certain patriotic, nationalistic and even militaristic mentality that I just can't support. As I was thinking about writing this piece, I didn't know when the tradition of singing the national anthems before games started, but I guessed that it was during World War II. And of course, it was. It started during baseball games and was adopted in all other sports. I have no problem with being proud of my country, even loving it deeply, but I think we need to be careful with what gets cooked up in that pre-game space. I love a little tribalism, but does it have to be a tribalism identified with the nation-state, an identity that can be (and has been) so easily manipulated for other purposes by governments and ruling powers?
Well maybe there's another option. I was discussing this piece over a bowl of noodles the other day with my colleague Br. Chris, and he may have provided an excellent solution. He tells me that in the US college football teams have "fight songs" that are performed by marching bands before the game. Apparently it's a rather enjoyably raucous hoo hah that gets the crowd very fired up. So it doesn't always have to include marching bands, but what about making special songs to be played before the game, incorporating elements of spectacle and crowd participation. Maybe this way the tribalism can be more local, more immediate, about the people of the city coming together for their team, allowing players and fans alike to be incorporated into the collective ritual. Can you imagine a massive rendition of AC/DC's Thunderstruck with taiko drummers at the four corners of the rink?! That could be pretty epic, and the possibilities are endless.
So for sports fans out there, and hockey fans in particular, what do you think, do we need the national anthems any more? Are you for or against and why? And what about changing the anthems to a local fight song?