By Jon Keller

BOSTON (CBS) – In the right hands – like those of Whitney Houston at the 1991 Super Bowl – our national anthem can be a thing of beauty.

In the wrong hands – like the grubby mitts of Roseanne Barr at a 1990 San Diego Padres game – it  can turn into something nasty.

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But the tempest over Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban’s decision to drop the Star-Spangled Banner from their pre-game ceremonies, a move since overruled by the NBA, raises a question – why does the anthem have to be a political football?

“The anthem has been political since Francis Scott Key wrote it,” says Mark Clague, associate professor at University of Michigan and an expert on the history of the anthem. He notes that the pre-game anthem ritual only dates back to World War II, and has often been interrupted by the political passions of the moment.

“I think of the anthem as a kind of barometer of the social tension around the concept of freedom in American life,” he says. “And when the temperature gets hot is when we have those controversies.”

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The anthem can be a showcase for unity at times of crisis, like the spine-tingling Rene Rancourt delivery at the first Bruins home game after the 2013 Boston Marathon murders when he gave way to the crowd’s emotional rendition. But from the black power salutes of our 1968 Olympic medalists to the kneeling protests triggered by Colin Kaepernick, it can also underscore our festering divisions.

“I do believe the anthem when it’s at its best is something that brings us together and we need to be together,” says Prof. Clague.

These days, there aren’t many things that bring us together, not our sources of information and certainly not our politics. But someday soon, we’ll be able to gather again at sports events and feel that sense of unity and belonging that being a fan cam provide.

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What a shame if that precious feeling is disrupted by our national anthem, instead of being enhanced by it.

Jon Keller