Senators Blast 'Paid Patriotism' at Pro Sporting Events

DOD Paid Millions for Teams to Display Patriotism

Giant US Flag being waved before football game.
Washington Redskins v New England Patriots. Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

You know those heartwarming patriotic tributes the U.S. military you see at professional sporting events? While they bring you goose bumps, the Department of Defense (DOD) has been paying teams many of your tax dollars to stage them, according to a report from a pair of U.S. Senators.

The report to Congress, issued by Arizona’s two Republican Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, criticized the DOD for spending $6.8 million since 2102 to pay teams in the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball and other professional sports leagues to stage “heartwarming” displays of what the Senators called “paid patriotism.”

The Senators say the sports teams are just as much to blame for accepting the money as the DOD is for offering it to them.

“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,” they wrote.

While the DOD currently has awarded contracts worth over $12 million with sports teams, “only” $6.8 million of it is being wrongly spent, said the Senators. “To be fair, some of what was contracted appears to be legitimate marketing and advertising activities for which we would expect DOD to compensate these teams, such as stadium signs, social media mentions, and booth space for recruiters at games,” they wrote.

In April of 2015, the Senators discovered that DOD contracts awarded to the NFL’s New York Jets and New England Patriots showed that the teams’ weekly “Hometown Heroes” troop tributes were actually being paid for by taxpayers, a fact that remained hidden from fans and millions of TV viewers.

“While well intentioned, we wonder just how many of these displays included a disclaimer that these events were in fact sponsored by the DOD at taxpayer expense,” wrote the Senators.

To stop the “paid patriotism,” Senators McCain and Flake introduced an amendment to the 2016 DOD’s annual budget spending bill prohibiting taxpayer-funded salutes to the troops.

Even before passage of the amendment, the NFL had voluntarily called on all of its teams to stop taking money to put on patriotic salutes to the troops.

But the Truth May Still be ‘Out There’

Despite the NFL’s corrective action, the Senators say the DOD still can’t fully account for the “nature and extent” of its paid patriotism spending at sporting events.

In fact, the Senators reported that more than one third of the paid patriotism contracts listed in their report had not been included in the list the DOD had given them. Instead, they were discovered as part of the Senator’s own investigation. “In the end, two-thirds of the contracts found by our offices or reported by DOD contained some form of paid patriotism,” they wrote in their report.

How Much Did Patriotism Cost?

According to the Senators’ report, the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons got the most DOD money of any NFL team, receiving $879,000 in contracts from 2012 through 2015. The New England Patriots were second, securing $700,000 in contracts.

In total, reported the Senators, the DOD spent $10.4 million of taxpayer money on marketing and advertising contracts with professional sports teams (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, and MLS) between 2012 and 2015.

“By paying for such heartwarming displays like recognition of wounded warriors, surprise homecomings, and on-field enlistment ceremonies, these displays lost their luster,” wrote the Senators. “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.”