The Pentagon Paid Millions to Pro Sports Teams for Military Tributes
Policy + Politics

The Pentagon Paid Millions to Pro Sports Teams for Military Tributes

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

That time 80 members of the National Guard unfurled an American flag on the turf during an Atlanta Falcons football game? You paid for that. That on-field swearing-in ceremony for soldiers at a New York Mets game? You paid for that, too.

That’s because the Department of Defense paid at least $6.8 million in taxpayer money to professional sports teams for military tributes over the last few years, according to a new report by U.S. Senators John McCain (R) and Jeff Flake (R), both of Arizona.

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The document shows that 72 of the 122 contracts between the Pentagon and pro sports teams issued since fiscal 2012 contained items dubbed “paid patriotism.” These events included enlistment and re-enlistment ceremonies, as well as those emotionally-charged reunions in which a service member surprises his or her family on camera, drawing many tears in the arena.

Overall, the department spent $53 million on marketing and advertising contracts with sports teams since 2012, but that figure also included genuine outreach campaigns like stadium banners and enlistment tents.

Speaking at a Capitol Hill press conference on Wednesday, Flake said that people rightly assume that such events are paid for by the teams themselves, out of the goodness of their hearts. The incidents detailed in the new report “cheapens the whole lot.”

Here’s what you need to know about what Flake and McCain uncovered:

How did the investigation start?

It began last spring, around the time of the National Football League’s annual draft, according to Flake.

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His office puts out weekly “Pork Chop” reports that skewer government programs he sees as wasteful. He came across an advertising and promotion contract between the New Jersey National Guard and the New York Jets for between $98,000 and $115,000.

That “didn’t sound right,” said Flake. So he and McCain, chair of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, asked the Pentagon for more information, a process he said was “like pulling teeth.”

A third of the contracts detailed in the report were discovered by congressional staff and weren’t handed over by the Pentagon, he noted.

Who benefited the most from these contracts?

In all, 50 teams across five major sports leagues had contracts with the Department of Defense. NFL teams were the biggest beneficiaries. The Atlanta Falcons received $879,000 from the state’s National Guard and other armed services; the New England Patriots got $700,000, and the Buffalo Bills received $650,000.

In Major League Baseball, the Atlanta Braves were paid $450,000. The Minnesota Wild was the National Hockey Leagues’ top bread-winner, raking in $570,000.

Related: NFL’s Image Deflated Further by Charging to Honor Vets

Did service members know they were being used?

McCain said he had a “talked to a few” of the service members involved in the various ceremonies and “obviously they did not know their appearances were being used to monetarily benefit” the teams.

He and Flake called on the clubs involved to donate any money from the contracts to veterans’ service organizations, such as the Wounded Warrior Project.

Did the team owners know?

Flake said the duo talked to a “couple owners” and they “had no idea this was going on,” suggesting each team’s marketing department was likely to blame.

McCain, known for his fiery temper, wasn’t so forgiving, saying “they should have known this is going on.”

“When you own a team, then you’re responsible for what a team does,” he said.

What about the Pentagon?

The Arizona lawmakers charged that the department knew its practices wouldn’t sit well with the American public and that’s why it dragged its feet cooperating with their investigation.

The Pentagon was “unusually and especially aggressive in trying to withhold this information from us,” said McCain, adding that the reasoning behind the scheme is “hard to figure.”

Flake said the policy was shared both by the National Guard and the Department of Defense. He, too, railed against the Pentagon for trying to “discount the importance of the whole situation,” at one point telling him he wouldn’t get answers until March 2016.

What happens now?

The Pentagon and the National Guard instituted some changes earlier this year, with leaders issuing memos banning “paid patriotism.” Meanwhile, the NFL has said it will conduct a full audit of its books to make sure the practice is no longer happening.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday said league intends to refund money its teams received for tributes to the troops

McCain and Flake also added a provision to the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, which serves as a policy roadmap for the Pentagon, expressly prohibiting the practice. The measure will likely be signed by President Obama as soon as next week.