Why do professional athletes get paid the big bucks? Why do professional athletes get paid the big bucks?

The National Anthem


Why do professional athletes get paid the big bucks?

The answer?  It has little to do with talent, speed, quickness, strength or scoring ability.  It has a great deal to do with enticing professional athletes to return game-after-game in spite of foreknowledge that they will be forced to stand quietly and endure someone butchering the national anthem.  Otherwise, depending on who is scheduled to sing at a particular game, the more cultured athletes might not show up, antagonizing fans and undermining chances of winning.  Agents consequently leverage this vocal-talent-void into multimillion dollar contracts for their clients and themselves.  That’s it in a nutshell.

Professional athletes need agents because, incredibly, many professional athletes are unaware the anthem is being butchered.

Like literacy, popular music over the past 25 years has been gradually submerged in the toilet.  The Grammy Awards are coming up.  Watch and hear.  On YouTube where an “oldies” song has been posted, it is always interesting to read comments like, “I love this stuff and I’m 14.  What we have now sucks.”

The national anthem has suffered from 1) a decline in vocal talent, 2) a decline in vocal talent awareness, 3) the advent of vocal gymnastics in contradistinction to sincerity and ability, and 4) on occasion, inopportune memory lapses.  The country’s anthem should not be so abused.

During the 1960s and 70s at every University of Washington football game the national anthem was sung by opera tenor Robert McGrath.  I remember watching him play Gabriele Adorno in a U of W production of Verdi’s Simon [See-mone’] Boccanegra, and even when McGrath wasn’t moving you had to watch him – he had extraordinary stage presence.  For the patriotic McGrath, singing the national anthem on Saturday in Husky Stadium was made-to-order (when the stadium announcer said, “Now rise and join Robert McGrath in the singing of The Star Spangled Banner,” people were on their feet).  For fans, McGrath started the afternoon off right, and it was preceding one of those games that I first heard the fourth stanza (“O! thus be it ever when free men shall stand…) which became my favorite.

Years later when we were staying in Colonial Williamsburg, a restaurant troubadour, dressed in colonial fashion while walking between tables and singing period songs, told patrons that we might recognize the melody of the next song, To Anacreon in Heaven, a British drinking song.  It was the melody of the Star Spangled Banner.  He had a low voice and, while McGrath always sounded good, the melody seemed more natural when sung by a bass.

This was confirmed a few years ago while attending a Seattle Mariners game where the national anthem was to be sung acappella by a performer appearing in the Seattle Opera annual production of Wagner’s Ring, bass Greer Grimsley.

Grimsley sang and everyone listened – not out of respect but because, well, he was good.  In fact, inspiring.  Not flat or weak or undisciplined or embarrassing as is so often the case.  Not even “very good.”  Inspiring.  As someone nearby remarked after Grimsley was finished: “My God.”

The game had not started but we could have all gone home then, having received our money’s worth.  I was elated that in our country’s vast vocal talent desert there was a Greer Grimsley.   And despite Robert McGrath or any rising sopranos (when you say “sopranos,” many have no hesitation in asking if it was really necessary to whack Salvatore Bonpensiero), I concluded that for the national anthem to be sung properly, it should be sung by a bass.  And beyond that, I concluded some other things.

Here, then, are the rules for the privilege of singing the national anthem.

  1. Unlike Roseanne Barr, you must have a history as a singer.  That history doesn’t have to be professional but you must show that you’ve been there, done that.
  2. You must have an attractive, strong, cultivated singing voice good enough to win an audition.
  3. If your vocal venue is rock, you’re disqualified.  The national anthem is not a rock song.  Don’t try to make it one.
  4. Regardless of how often you’ve sung it before, you must rehearse what you will sing, leaving nothing to chance so that, unlike Christine Aguilera, Cyndi Lauper, Lauren Alaina or even the great Robert Goulet, you don’t forget the lyrics.
  5. Any stanza is acceptable but you must stick with the original lyrics; you cannot make up your own lyrics, like James Brown.
  6. You must accept that you’re the messenger and, as Greer Grimsley did, use your talent sincerely.  It’s your song because it’s everyone’s song.
  7. You cannot showboat.  This includes vocal gymnastics.  Just sing.
  8. While certainly not an absolute rule, being a bass is preferable.  The general bass timbre makes a difference.

The United States has the oldest continuing government in the world, two hundred and thirty years – a long time.  The founding fathers knew what they were doing but, as history shows, it wasn’t simple, it wasn’t easy.  It was much more than Fort McHenry.  As John Quincy Adams stated, “Posterity – you will never know how much it has cost my generation to preserve your freedom.  I hope you will make good use of it.”  Before singing, it would also be wise to review those remarks with the hope, as the second stanza ends, “’Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh long may it wave/O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!”