Newt Gingrich: Will we renew our patriotism and respect our shared history, America, or choose decay?

As the controversy over athletes boycotting the National Anthem continues, I would like to share some historical perspective.

“The Star-Spangled Banner” became part of our sports traditions for a good reason: It brought people together in times of grave national turmoil. For this reason alone, it is a tradition worth respecting.

According to MLB.com, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was first performed at a baseball game on May 15, 1862. Given baseball’s lengthy history in America, this is likely the first time it was played at a major U.S. sporting event.

The timing was significant. In 1862, the nation was embroiled in the Civil War. America was as divided as it had ever been. People were fighting and lives were being lost in battle. It was a dark time for our still young country.

So, William Cammeyer, a businessman who was opening Union Grounds park in Brooklyn, decided to do something that would bring the nearly 3,000 people in attendance at the first game together and unify them as Americans. The band played “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It wasn’t officially the National Anthem at the time, but it was still respected as a deeply patriotic, uniquely American song.

Fifty-six years later, America entered World War I, and the nation was once again thrown into turmoil. Major League Baseball had cut the season short because players had been drafted or enlisted to go fight the Great War overseas – and teams were expected to sacrifice and contribute to the war effort.

During the seventh inning stretch of the first game of the 1918 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed.

The song had a profound impact on both the crowd and the players, as The New York Times reported September 6, 1918:

“The yawn was checked and the heads were bared as the ball players turned quickly about and faced the music. Jackie Fred Thomas of the U.S. Navy [the Red Sox’s third baseman] was at attention, as he stood erect, with his eyes set on the flag fluttering at the top of the lofty pole in right field. First the song was taken up by a few, then others joined, and when the final notes came, a great volume of melody rolled across the field. It was at the very end that the onlookers exploded into thunderous applause and rent the air with a cheer that marked the highest point of the day’s enthusiasm.”

This 100-year-old story by the Times perfectly captures why we respect Francis Scott Key’s battle hymn for the War of 1812 – and why beginning in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson ordered it to be played during military and naval occasions, and why later it was officially confirmed as our National Anthem by an Act of Congress in 1931.

Historically, “The Star-Spangled Banner” has been part of the shared story of all Americans – a strand of common thread that stitches our nation together. In times of danger, times of pain, and times of triumph, we come together, stand, and sing, because despite our differences, we are all Americans.

But day-by-day, the left tries to undermine and destroy the things that have historically unified this country. The NFL national anthem controversy is just the latest example of this.

My fear is that the NFL will succumb to pressure and try to side-step the problem by no longer performing the national anthem before games. This would be the worst path to take.

As a nation, we need to have a serious debate: Will we renew our patriotism and respect our shared history, or will we allow our American institutions to decay?

Are we going to ignore our traditions out of fear of ridicule from the left, or are we going to proudly continue to be “the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 1814 for an America that was worth fighting for and defending.

It still is. We need to defend it.

Newt Gingrich is a Fox News contributor. A Republican, he was speaker of the United States House of Representatives from 1995 to 1999. Follow him on Twitter @NewtGingrich. His latest book is "Understanding Trump."