Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Jack Knox: Why do we sing anthems at games, anyway?

Whoa, Canada, it’s barely mid-July and we’re into our second anthem-related drama of the summer. First there was the whole fuss over whether O Canada’s “in all thy sons command” should be changed to “in all of us command.” (It was. I think.
FILE - In this Tuesday, July 12, 2016 file photo, The Tenors, shown on the scoreboard, perform during the Canadian National Anthem prior to the MLB baseball All-Star Game, in San Diego. A member of a Canadian singing quartet changed a lyric in his country's national anthem and held up a sign proclaiming "All Lives Matter" during a pregame performance at the 87th All-Star Game on Tuesday. The Tenors, a group based in British Columbia, caused a stir at Petco Park with Remigio Pereira's actions while singing "O Canada." (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)

Jack Knox mugshot genericWhoa, Canada, it’s barely mid-July and we’re into our second anthem-related drama of the summer.

First there was the whole fuss over whether O Canada’s “in all thy sons command” should be changed to “in all of us command.” (It was. I think.)

Now we’re in a tizzy because one of the Tenors — a four-man Canadian vocal group — went rogue and changed the anthem lyrics at Major League Baseball’s all-star game in San Diego on Tuesday.

This, judging from the Canadian public’s reaction, constitutes the greatest national emergency since the October Crisis of 1970.

What Remigio Pereira did was insert the line “all lives matter” into his solo during the singing of O Canada. This is controversial because the phrase has been used as a counterpoint to the Black Lives Matter movement. It can be taken A) at face value, B) as being dismissive of claims of systemic discrimination, or C) as dog-whistle racism. In any case, it’s not one of those conversations Americans want to have at a ball game.

They particularly don’t want to have it with a Canadian, a foreigner who not only thinks it would be a swell idea to wade in and lecture Americans about an emotional, divisive domestic issue, but who hijacks the showcase of America’s national pastime to do so. That would be like Ted Nugent singing The Star Spangled Banner at a Canucks game and dropping “By the dawn’s early light” in favour of “You people should really have looser gun laws.”

Anyhow, a brouhaha ensued. The rest of the Tenors (including Port McNeill’s Clifton Murray) quickly punted Pereira, distancing themselves as though he had been in the passenger seat at Mel Gibson’s traffic stop. Victoria’s Michael Saunders, the only Canadian to play in the all-star game, unwittingly got dragged into the controversy like an innocent bystander pulled into a bar brawl. The Twitterverse declared itself disgusted and offended by the whole affair, as usual (let’s not forget the social-media slagfest after Victoria’s Nelly Furtado sang O Canada at the NBA all-star game in February).

So here’s a question: why do we sing anthems at sporting events, anyway? In particular, why do Canadians and Americans have to sing (or at least stand for) each other’s?

We do it because, well, it’s habit. The National Hockey League decided in 1987 that both anthems must be sung whenever Canadian- and U.S.-based teams meet, cementing a practice that had been common since the 1960s. Major-league baseball and basketball follow the same rule (though it’s applied relatively rarely, each sport having only one Canadian team). Two-anthem games are common for Victoria’s Royals and HarbourCats.

Why? No disrespect, but The Star Spangled Banner means nothing to us. Might as well sing Uptown Funk or Which Way You Goin’ Billy. American fans must feel the same way about O Canada. Standing for somebody else’s anthem is like listening to an aging relative describe his colonoscopy; it’s something to be politely endured, not enjoyed. For one side an anthem is an expression of national pride, but for the other it’s the last pee break before the puck drops.

Anthems are also a minefield of potential animosity. Sports, with its us-versus-them mentality, can bring out the best kind of passion and the worst form of tribalism. Every few years, usually in the playoffs, this translates into one team’s fans booing a rival team’s anthem (Americans love it when you boo their anthem, almost as much as they like being preached to about race relations) which prompts the other team’s fans to reply in kind.

Next thing you know, both sides are hurling insults across the border, indignantly huffing and puffing and dragging out old grievances like an angry couple locked in a bad relationship (“You shafted us over softwood lumber!” “You slept with my best friend!”). So then Trump demands that they build a wall and we say fine by us, just as long as they send all the Canadians home first, except for Bieber.

Really, it would make sense for both of us to just stop singing each other’s anthems altogether. And if we must sing, don’t mess with the lyrics.