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Florida Legislature poised to mandate anthem at games

Pensacola Blue Wahoos

In Tallahassee, both legislative chambers are moving ahead with bills to tie taxpayer money for professional sports in Florida to the playing of the national anthem before games.

On a 12-4 vote, mostly along party lines, House Bill 499 was approved by the House Local Administration and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee. Its companion, Senate Bill 1298, was approved in committee last week. Rep. Mike Giallombardo is a supporter.

“The national anthem, and our flag, has been a symbol of unity and freedom. Everybody pauses. It’s the one thing that we all have and can come together, and we agree upon.”

The bills mirror that of a Texas law, which went into effect in September. Opponents, including Rep. Dan Daley, contend that requiring the “Star-Spangled Banner” has the opposite effect from what’s intended.

“Freedom also means the freedom not to do something. So, if a sports franchise, for some reason, opts to not play the national anthem, they should be given that opportunity.”

But any such law in Florida could be a moot point. Most, if not all, of Florida's pro teams — as well as in college and high school — already play the anthem, including Pensacola’s two pro teams.

A Blue Wahoos spokesman declined to comment. Ice Flyers owner Greg Harris was out of town and not available for an interview. The Flyers also play “O Canada” before home games, a nod to the number of its players, and others in the Southern Professional Hockey League, who are Canadian.

“Legislators pass laws; that’s how they can prove to the people that elect them that they’re doing something,” said Charles Zelden, a political scientist at Nova Southeastern University. “If the goal is to play the national anthem, there’s really no need for the law.”

The timing of the anthem bills — the session during a state election year — is no accident, he says.

“There’s a tendency to create a problem that doesn’t exist; pass a law about it, and claim that it’s been solved,” Zelden said. “It’s basically a form of pandering. It’s a way for legislatures to say, ‘Look at what I’m doing, look at what we’re achieving, vote for me.’”

The question here, says Zelden, is whether this carrot-and-stick approach is separated from a law that says you must do this — and will there be a court challenge?

“It’s quite possible that the mechanism — being a secondary mechanism of ‘if you don’t do it, we won’t give you the money that you want’ — protects it from the First Amendment argument,’” he said. “I think there’s going to be lawsuits on almost everything passed by the Florida Legislature this term. Because so much of what they’re doing raises red flags.”

Among other measures that could end up on a docket, Zelden says, include one that could limit discussions of sexual orientation or gender identity in schools.

“The ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill that’s currently being debated would definitely result in litigation; new maps that have been drawn for redistricting,” said Zelden. “So much of what the legislature’s been doing has been playing to culture war issues, and culture war issues are going to have to go through the gauntlet of the court. Be they state court or federal court.”

When considering so-called “culture war” issues, very often lawmakers will move more-substantive measures to the back burner. Nova Southeastern’s Charles Zelden says this session is no different.

“For those people who are concerned about the future of the nation and see, in teams not playing the national anthem, a decline in nationhood and Americanism, these issues are important,” said Zelden. “But for the rest of us — who aren’t as concerned over this — it seems like it’s a secondary concern to passing a good budget [and] seeing that the people are protected; they’re healthy.”

The Texas law on which Florida’s national anthem bills are based was crafted after Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban instructed his team to stop playing the national anthem before home games.