Pentagon Pays Millions for Patriotic Displays at Sporting Events

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Arizona Republican John McCain and Jeff Flake have produced a report criticizing the Defense Department for spending $6.8 million on “paid patriotism” at sporting events since 2012.

The senators found 72 contracts with professional football, baseball, soccer, auto racing, and hockey teams fitting this description, with about 80 percent of the money going to NFL teams.

USA Today reports:

The Atlanta Falcons received $879,000; the New England Patriots, $700,000; and the Buffalo Bills, $650,000. The Atlanta Braves received $450,000, the most of any Major League Baseball franchise, while the Minnesota Wild were paid $570,000, the most of any National Hockey League team.

One example cited by USA Today was a payment to the Atlanta Falcons for a 2013 event “during which a roaring crowd cheered as the Falcons welcomed 80 guard members who unfurled an American flag across the Georgia Dome’s turf.”

UPI provides more examples, including “$49,000 to the Milwaukee Brewers to sponsor Sunday performances of ‘God Bless America’ and $20,000 to the New York Jets to honor New Jersey Army National Guard soldiers.”

The report defines “paid patriotism” events as including “on-field color guard, enlistment and re-enlistment ceremonies, performances of the national anthem, full-field flag details, ceremonial first pitches and puck drops, and hometown hero and wounded warrior tributes.” The Army National Guard is described as a particularly enthusiastic sponsor of such events.

The senators were careful to separate questionable paid patriotism events from reasonable and proper expenditures, such as renting stadium space for signs and recruiting booths. One of the expenses considered abusive was the National Guard “paying the Indianapolis Colts for use of a luxury suite, autographed items, pre-game field visits, and cheerleader appearances.”

As Senators McCain and Flake pointed out, these patriotic tributes are extremely popular with sports fans, but they probably had no idea the events were funded by the Pentagon under contract with the teams; they thought they were watching voluntary salutes to the military, ordered in a burst of patriotic pride by team or stadium management.

“This not only betrays the sentiment and trust of fans, but casts an unfortunate shadow over the genuine patriotic partnerships that do so much for our troops,” said the report. “Americans deserve the ability to assume that tributes for our men and women in military uniform are genuine displays of national pride, which many are, rather than taxpayer-funded DOD marketing gimmicks.”

Senator Flake said at a news conference to roll out the report, as quoted by USA Today:

What is upsetting is when you see activities like this that people assume when they go to games are paid for out of the goodness of the heart by the owners and the teams, and then to find out the taxpayers are paying for it. It kind of cheapens it and it’s simply not right.

A statement from Senator McCain, posted by NPR read:

Americans across the country should be deeply disappointed that many of the ceremonies honoring troops at professional sporting events are not actually being conducted out of a sense of patriotism, but for profit in the form of millions in taxpayer dollars going from the Department of Defense to wealthy pro sports franchises. Fans should have confidence that their hometown heroes are being honored because of their honorable military service, not as a marketing ploy.

The Obama administration has defended these events as necessary recruiting expenses, but McCain and Flake expressed skepticism that recruiting was significantly enhanced. They also expressed some impatience with the Defense Department for providing incomplete and misleading information in response to their requests.

The “paid patriotism” problem seems to be in the process of resolving itself. UPI notes that the NFL is “conducting an audit of all of its agreements between the teams and the military, and would refund payments made for activities beyond recruitment.”

CNN Money reports Major League Baseball has already “encouraged teams to take steps to avoid any appearance that they are being paid by a military organization.”

USA Today quotes a September memo from the Pentagon saying military branches should “neither fund nor approve any sports marketing or sports-related contract in which the terms of the contract require the service to pay … to honor members of the armed services.” The next military authorization bill should include a ban on paid patriotism events. With these corrections in mind, Senator McCain said he was not planning to hold hearings on the matter.


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