Grand New Flags

Grand New Flags
Photo: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

It was 255 by 505 feet, and once hung on the Hoover Dam, reports John Branch in the New York Times. It was the largest American flag in the world. Big flags have been part of special events in the USA for nearly a quarter century.

Eccentric patriot Thomas Demski commissioned a 95-by-160-foot American flag in 1984 for display at Super Bowl XVIII, where it covered half the football field at Tampa Stadium. We presume Mr. Demski was rooting for the L.A. Raiders, who beat the Washington Redskins by a record margin of 38–9.

Mr. Demski founded the Superflag company, a few competitors emerged (the American way) and the flags kept getting bigger. “It is an American phenomenon, no doubt about it,” says the NFL’s  Frank Supovitz, but the phenomenon has spread to other lands — the current big flag record holder is Israel, with a 2,165- by 330-foot edition of its national banner.

In the USA, the practice is to display the giant Stars and Stripes, held by hundreds of volunteers, for the singing of the National Anthem that precedes large public events. People holding the edges of the flag often shake it, imparting ripples of motion, like a real flag in a breeze.

A football field-sized flag, with 5-foot stars, weighs about 1,600 pounds, and requires hundreds of people to unfurl and display it. Personnel at nearby military bases often volunteer for flag-holding duty at NFL, Major League Baseball, NASCAR, and college football events. Some colleges now own giant flags to avoid thousands of dollars in rental fees.

There are some concerns about flag ettiquette, and rightly so, since many aspects of giant flag operation violate flag customs and traditions, and even parts of the Flag Code of the United States (Title 4, United States Code, Chapter 1, and amendments). The flags are unrolled and rolled, not folded in the traditional “cocked hat”  triangle. Some big flags even break apart for transport. Tarps are placed under giant flag rolls to symbolically avoid touching the ground with the banner, another taboo, and volunteers stand under unfurled flags to keep them off the surfaces of playing fields.

In the years since the late Mr. Demski’s innovation, giant flags are conventional at giant events. At spectacles with thousands of spectators, crowds may even feel cheated if events start without them. Are big flags “lapel pins” for arena and stadium events? Maybe. Are giant flag displays undignified? Perhaps. Do they evoke genuine, big emotions? Yes.

Thomas Demski died in 2002, at age 72. Steve Harvey of the L.A. times quotes him as saying “The flag, I guess, is one thing everyone understands.” His ashes are interred within the 132-foot flagpole on his front yard, which proudly flies Old Glory, the 30- by 60-foot size.

Happy Fourth of July.

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