DALLAS — The way Mark Cuban tells it, it was basically a social experiment. Cut the national anthem from the Mavs’ program and see if anyone notices. Didn’t mean he wouldn’t strike up the anthem again. Didn’t mean he would, either.
“We weren’t sure what would happen,” he said in an email Wednesday.
What happened, of course, was all hell broke loose.
First came reports Tuesday that the omission of the anthem at 12 preseason and regular-season games at American Airlines Center had been no accident, which Cuban initially confirmed without further comment, thus ratcheting up the intrigue. The story exploded like a SpaceX rocket. Next thing you know, a White House reporter is asking the press secretary what Joe Biden thinks.
Jen Psaki cautioned that she hadn’t spoken to the president about the issue, which was, after all, not 24 hours old. Not to mention he probably has other things on his mind. But she gave it her best shot.
“I know he’s incredibly proud to be an American and has great respect for the anthem and all that it represents,” she said. “He’d also say, of course, that part of pride in our country means recognizing where we as a country haven’t lived up to our highest ideals.”
And if that didn’t reflect the new administration’s bipartisan efforts, I don’t know what does.
The problem is that you can’t have it both ways these days. Either you’re a patriot or a pariah. We went over all this last summer. No one met at midfield then, and no one’s liable to get cozy now. We’re all still shouting at each other from the sidelines.
Cuban being Cuban, he didn’t let a sleeping dog lie. So he cut the anthem and sat back to watch.
The Dallas Morning News' Brad Townsend noticed the difference before the Mavs’ first preseason game when players from both teams lined up on the floor like they always do and nothing happened. They finally shrugged and dispersed. Brad figured it was just a glitch. Wouldn’t be the first one in these unprecedented times.
Frankly, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I didn’t notice the omission. In my defense, games without fans didn’t only affect players. First, it was eerily quiet, and only the floor was lit most of the time. Sitting in the dark up on the concourse, you felt like you sneaked in.
Cuban probably delighted in telling media outlets that even they didn’t notice. He said he was making a point. The Mavs apparently conducted research a few years ago and found that most fans don’t show up in time for the anthem; some don’t stop walking the concourse when it’s playing; others don’t take off their hats or even stand. All of which I could have told him if only he’d asked.
Cuban also noted that, for 16 years, the Mavs never played the national anthem before games. Don Carter preferred “God Bless America.” I did, indeed, notice that difference all those years. Never heard anyone complain about it, though, much less ask the president what he thought.
In an email Wednesday, Cuban said they’d planned to go without the anthem only until there were “paying fans in the building.” He came off less certain in other accounts.
“We never announced and I don’t know who invented the notion that we were not going to play the anthem going forward,” he said in the email. “We were having ongoing discussions.”
As it turns out, so did NBA officials, who reacted to Cuban’s kerfuffle by issuing a one-sentence statement indicating, with fans back in buildings this week, “all teams will play the national anthem ... "
Cuban acknowledged later Wednesday that the Mavs would observe the league’s mandate, and that was that. Crisis averted. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.
If I had a complaint with how Cuban conducted his little experiment, it would be that for most of the day his intent wasn’t clear. I asked if he meant to take the onus off players torn between showing respect for the flag and exercising their right to protest. Remove the vehicle of the controversy. Once upon a time, the anthem played while NFL players were still in locker rooms. But there’s no going back to that now. Just like there’s no going back to “God Bless America” at Mavs games. The anthem is less a commemoration now than a political statement one way or another.
Cuban told me that he “didn’t appreciate that the anthem had been weaponized. That there was pressure from all sides, not just on the kneeling but for the voices behind the protests to be heard.”
He made his stance clearer later Wednesday in an official statement in which he said the Mavs “respect and always have respected the passion people have for the anthem and our country.” He went on to say the Mavs “also loudly hear the voices of those who feel that the anthem does not represent them.” Those voices must be heard, he said, and each of us should listen with as much energy as we demonstrate in our own convictions.
“Only then,” Cuban said, “we can move forward and have courageous conversations that move this country forward and find what unites us.”
His alliterative phrasing — “courageous conversations” — was no accident. On a hot day last June, the morning of George Floyd’s funeral, the Mavs held a service of their own on Victory Plaza. A host of speakers ranging from the then Dallas police chief to current and former players spoke. The program was billed “Courageous Conversations.” More often than not, it was an uncomfortable conversation, which was the point.
Wrapping up the 2 1/2-hour program last summer, Cuban said they’d know if it had been a success if peaceful protests were still in effect in a year or two. It’s been eight months. He’s right on schedule.