Fifty years ago, my father, Flyers founder Ed Snider, was furious at Lou Scheinfeld, his right-hand man, when Lou instructed his staff to play Kate Smith’s “God Bless America” instead of the national anthem before a big home game. But we won and the fans loved it. And so began the unlikely romance between Philadelphia and Kate Smith, part and parcel of the Broad Street Bullies’ colorful legacy and lore.
The fuzzy videotape of her first live appearance at the Spectrum in 1974 prior to the Flyers’ winning their first Stanley Cup has been played every year before big games. Her record against tough opponents over five decades stands at an astounding 101-31-5. Few coaches have done better, and none have lasted longer.
No wonder Flyers fans loved her.
When the dust settles, Kate Smith’s name may well be cleared of the recent accusations of racism leveled against her. However, the fallout from the Flyers’ swift and unceremonious dumping of her into the trash bin of history; the haunting image of her statue — covered head-to-toe in black sheets, ropes tied around her body — will not be soon forgotten.
But obscured by the headlines is a hidden dimension of this story. It’s about the sense of community, common cause, and goodwill that a team forges among its fans in both good and bad times. We wear the same team jerseys and T-shirts. We check our gender, race, and class identities at the door. Win? We laugh, hug, and high-five. Lose? We grouse and curse together.
A shared identity among 20,000 politically and culturally diverse people is precious and rare in today’s deeply divided society. Born in the late 1960s and lifted by the rising tide of rock-and-roll in the ’70s, the modern arena has become a city’s center, the crossroads of culture. Behind the scenes at an arena it is no different.
I grew up in locker rooms and backstage halls starting at age 8, trailing my father, first with the NFL’s Eagles and then the Flyers and the Spectrum. Beyond the public eye is a beehive of activity and controlled chaos. From top brass to tradesmen, concessionaires and security guards, it’s all-hands-on-deck. A thousand things go on, fascinating machinations that keep a major event seemingly running smoothly — for thousands of demanding guests. Everything has to work, night after night, year after year.
The stakes are high, but remarkably, staff turnover is low.
For 50 years, the Spectrum was my family’s second home, its people my people. Nobody saw the other as rich, poor, black, white, gay, or straight. Inside the arena we were like Switzerland, politically neutral. What happens out there, stays out there. We have a game to win, a star to admire, a family to get home safely.
People are asking what Ed Snider would have done? Having gotten to know Kate Smith personally over many years, he would, I suspect, have taken time to learn the facts before rushing to judgment. As a beloved member of the Flyers’ extended family, she deserved a full hearing.
But times have changed. Teams and arenas are owned today by corporations and billionaires who made their names and fortunes elsewhere. When Ed Snider died three years ago, the family ethos was buried with him.
The fight for civil rights is a cause for which we can all be proud, but we are bearing witness to a menacing split in our country that has run amok. Owners of professional sports teams are neither sociologists nor historians. But they have their biases. Let us hope that what may be the last bastion of goodwill and shared identity among strangers remains free from the bitter cultural divide. Coming together as one, if for only three magical hours, is something special. Now more than ever.