Teams who don’t proudly hail twilight’s last gleaming could face fines

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Professional sports teams may soon be fined if they don’t play “The Star-Spangled Banner” before every game. The Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee voted in favor of legislation (SB 1298) that would require a sports team to cue up the U.S. national anthem at the start of each team sporting event at stadiums that receive public dollars.

“Florida is the freedom state,” said Sen. Joe Gruters, the bill sponsor, “and if you want taxpayer dollars for your stadium, you will have to play the national anthem. It is reasonable and appropriate to think we would continue to play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at tax-funded stadiums.”

The requirement would fall on any team entering into an agreement with a government entity in Florida. That includes every sports franchise playing in a government-owned or subsidized sporting venue.

The presentation of the amendment sparked some curious questions.

“Who doesn’t play the national anthem now?” asked Sen. Victor Torres, an Orlando Democrat.

Gruters, a Sarasota Republican, said he doesn’t know of any teams in Florida that don’t play the anthem at the start of each game.

“I don’t know of any instances in Florida,” he said. “It’s just a proactive approach to make sure people play it.”

The anthem has, for some, become a source of political outrage in the normally escapist world of sports. In 2016, Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback with the San Francisco 49ers at the time, incited outrage after he started to take a knee during the anthem to protest police shootings of Black men.

The anthem still plays at all NFL games, but a decision to also play “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which many call the Black national anthem, drew criticism in right-wing media.

Gruters said he doesn’t care if a second song gets played, so long as the national anthem still kicks off events.

“They can play whatever else they want,” he said.

If teams don’t comply, the Department of Economic Opportunity could issue fines.

Right now, taxpayer dollars support eight stadiums where professional sports franchises headquarter and play home games. That includes MLB (Tampa Bay Rays) NBA (Miami Heat and Orlando Magic) NFL (Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and NHL (Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning) teams participating in the Professional Sports Franchise Program.

It would also include any teams benefiting from state grants, which wraps in 10 Major League Baseball teams conducting Spring Training in Florida and receiving state grants.

Sen. Bobby Powell, a West Palm Beach Democrat, voted against the bill. He considered the measure a directive straight from Gov. Ron DeSantis intended to feed his presidential ambitions.

“I understand that we are now the freedom state,” Powell said. “But that bill appears to be government overreach in terms of telling private operations how to run their business. We cannot pick and choose when to be free.”

A staff analysis acknowledges potential First Amendment issues and the concern this could be considered compelled speech. The legislation notably makes playing the anthem a requirement to include in contracts voluntarily entered into by teams.

Rep. Tommy Gregory, also a Sarasota Republican, filed the House companion (HB 499), which awaits a first committee hearing.

“It’s important to me that we find ways as a state and a country to unify,” Gregory said. “I think having national symbols of unity, whether that’s the flag or national anthem, recognizing the strengths in our country, I think would go a long way toward unity.”

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at jacobogles@hotmail.com.

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