Pentagon spent millions on 'paid patriotism' at pro sports games

A report by two U.S. senators reveals that the Pentagon has been paying millions of dollars to the NHL, NFL and other major sports leagues to pay tribute to the troops. The senators call the spending illegitimate and dishonest and their probe has already prompted changes.

Patriotism has a pricetag, according to a report that calls Pentagon spending a 'boondoggle'

Military members run on the field at a New England Patriots game in November 2013. The NFL has a Salute to Service program to honour troops but a U.S. Senate report released Nov.5, 2015, revealed it and other major sports leagues accept Pentagon money for 'paid patriotism' activities. (Elise Amendola/Associated Press)

Some American sports fans have been duped by the Pentagon, the NFL, NBA, NHL and other pro sports teams that were carrying out "paid patriotism" activities at games.

Any Canadians who have attended games in the U.S. may have been struck by how military members are often honoured. Sometimes they throw the first pitch at a baseball game or drop the puck at centre ice, there are military appreciation nights, there are soldiers singing the national anthem, there are surprise homecoming events staged at mid-field, there are "hometown hero" video features played on the Jumbotrons, and the list of feel-good troop tributes goes on.

Turns out, some of those tributes weren't done by the teams to genuinely honour the sacrifices made by the troops and their families, they were done because they were paid — by taxpayers — to do them.

The examples of "paid patriotism" were exposed Wednesday in a report by two U.S. senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, who called the contracts between the Pentagon and the sports leagues a "boondoggle."

They first discovered the arrangements in April and have been digging into them since then to shed light on what they believe to be inappropriate and dishonest spending.

"Unsuspecting audience members became the subjects of paid marketing campaigns rather than simply bearing witness to teams' authentic, voluntary shows of support for the brave men and women who wear our nation's uniform," the senators wrote.

It has betrayed the trust of fans, McCain and Flake said, and cast an unfortunate shadow over the genuine efforts the leagues make to honour U.S. troops, including the NFL's big Salute to the Service campaign. The leagues do a lot of good work for the military, and these activities "cheapens the whole lot," Flake said at a news conference.

Taxpayers shouldn't fund patriotism

Since 2012, the defence department has doled out at least $6.8 million to professional and college sports teams for the military tributes. That's out of a budget worth $53 million for advertising and marketing contracts with sports teams.

When McCain and Flake started investigating they were told by the National Guard, the military branch that did a lot of the spending, that the money was well-spent and legitimate because the patriotic events helped with recruitment efforts.  The NFL also played defence, saying the senators were distorting the league's relationship with the troops.

The senators' probe revealed messy accounting at the defence department, however, showing that it wasn't keeping good track of how many contracts had actually been awarded or how much money had actually been spent. It also wasn't thoroughly measuring whether all of these displays of patriotism were even making a difference in recruitment.
A parachutist lands on the field at a San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos game in the fall of 2013 as part of a tribute to U.S. troops. (Jeff Lewis/Associated Press)

Flake said it was like pulling teeth to get information from the Pentagon on the contracts. He assumes officials knew it  would be embarrassing.

They analysed 122 marketing contracts and determined that 72 of them contained paid patriotism activities. While the gestures may be well-intentioned, "it is hard to understand how a team accepting taxpayer funds to sponsor a military appreciation game, or to recognize wounded warriors or returning troops, can be construed as anything other than paid patriotism," the report says.

"Given the immense sacrifices made by our service members, it seems more appropriate that any organization with a genuine interest in honouring them, and deriving public credit as a result, should do so at its own expense and not at that of the American taxpayer."

Marketing gimmicks and perks

The senators say in addition to the "marketing gimmicks" taxpayer money was spent on gifts, tickets and other perks. It's hard to justify how those expenditures inspired Americans in the crowd to sign up for service, they suggested in the report.

"If the most compelling message about military service we can deliver to prospective recruits and influencers is the promise of game tickets, gifts, and player appearances, we need to rethink our approach to how we are inspiring qualified men and women to military service," McCain and Flake wrote.

The senators are satisfied that their investigation prompted the Pentagon and major sports leagues to think twice about how money was being spent on marketing and advertising. The Defence Department has issued guidance to clarify what is legitimate spending (stadium signs, for example, or space at stadiums for recruitment booths) and what is not (paying a team to let a military member sing the national anthem, or paying them to recognize troops during a game).

 Some existing contracts with leagues were modified or cancelled altogether.

The NFL also issued guidance to its 32 teams asking them to make sure the lines between legitimate advertising and paid patriotism aren't blurred. The league is also auditing all of its contracts with the Pentagon and is vowing to refund any inappropriate payments.


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