It’s a Cal football tradition. After the band concludes playing its traditional pump up pregame show, it leads the stadium, Cal and visiting fans alike, in a rendition of the national anthem: “And the rockets’ BLUE glare, …, For the land of the freeeeee, and the home of the BEARS!!!” Okay, not quite what Francis Scott Key intended. But it is what many Cal fans, the student section in particular, recite when the Golden Bears prepare to take the field. It is also a feature at basketball games, volleyball, rugby, and any other event where a critical mass of Cal fans are on hand for a rendition of the national anthem.
As an avid Cal fan, this is one tradition that has troubled me ever since I arrived on campus two years ago. It just doesn’t seem right to change the words to the national anthem. My sentiments are not shared by most of my fellow rabid Cal fans, however. They inform me that the alterations are in good taste, and indeed quite patriotic. The fact that we care enough to change the words means that we still care enough about the song to pay attention to it, one said. Another said that it is better to sing an altered version than none at all. Yet another, a pyrotechnic fanatic, informed me that it is likely the rockets Francis Scott Key saw on that fateful September 1814 night in Baltimore were actually blue, not red. Apparently he was colorblind.
I agree that there is no intent to disrespect the nation, the flag, or those who serve it. It’s simply Cal students’ way to have a little fun. However, intending to cause no disrespect doesn’t mean that others may not perceive it as such. I have heard from numerous opposing fans, casual Cal fans, and even some Old Blues who are shocked and offended upon hearing the Cal anthem for the first time. Consider this comment posted on a UCLA message board after last year’s Cal-UCLA game at the Rose Bowl: “I used to actually respect that university [Cal] but after seeing their fans chanting or whatever they were doing that was not singing the national anthem while the rest of the stadium was I have lost most if not all the respect I had for them,” wrote Bruin fan “Ed.”
Keep in mind that this was following a game in which the Bears spanked UCLA 45-26, which included an epic 93 yard touchdown run by Javid Best. It was no surprise that Bruin fans were annoyed. Yet instead of simply being peeved at the Bears for being so much better than his beloved team, Cal fans gave this fan a legitimate reason to attack our university.
But more than that, the alterations ignore the true purpose of the national anthem. It is sung or played at sporting events to remind players, coaches, and spectators of the reason they can play the game in a safe andfree country – our brave men and women in uniform. It is a time for unity, a time for both sides to come together and celebrate our nation and our freedom. It’s a subtle reminder that sporting events are merely entertaining distractions – the truly meaningful competition takes place on battlefields around the world, with much more than a trophy (or an Axe) at stake.
The Star Spangled Banner should never be a Cal spirit song. While seemingly creative and harmless, doing so undermines the one moment of unity among the crowd (unless it is the annual rugby game against the University of British Columbia, in which case all bets are off). The rest of the game will pit the teams and fans against one another – surely the competition can pause for just a minute to honor our country.
On September 11, the ninth anniversary of that terrible day, the Cal Bears will take the field against the Colorado Buffalos. How special would it be if 70,000 Cal and Colorado fans alike could join in a stirring rendition of our nation’s greatest song on that tragic day.