At a time when professional athletes such as Colin Kaepernick are labeled as unpatriotic for refusing to stand during the national anthem at sporting events, it turns out that the very displays of patriotism and tributes to the armed forces on display at those games were paid for by the U.S. government. So when those teams tell the players to stand for the “Star-Spangled Banner,” it is because the fake patriotism is bought and sold like a commodity.
Stephen A. Smith brought attention to the practice on ESPN’s “First Take” recently, as players have come under fire for refusing to salute the flag. Smith noted that players were not required to stand until 2009, and before that time players did not stand for the anthem because they remained in the locker room until game time. Apparently, as Smith said, placing the players on the field during the playing of the anthem was a marketing strategy to make them appear more patriotic. Moreover, he mentioned that the U.S. Department of Defense and the National Guard paid the NFL over $10 million to make it happen.
In November 2015, Republican U.S. Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona released a report stating that “In all, the military services reported $53 million in spending on marketing and advertising contracts with sports teams between 2012 and 2015. More than $10 million of that total was paid to teams in the National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB), National Basketball Association (NBA), National Hockey League (NHL), and Major League Soccer (MLS).”
An account of some of the individual contracts tells the story. For example, as USA Today reported, the NFL received the lion’s share with $6 million. NASCAR received $1.56 million in 2015 alone because the DOD deemed the expense “integral to its recruiting efforts,” as The Washington Post reported. The Atlanta Falcons received $879,000 in taxpayer money, while the New England Patriots received $700,000, and the Buffalo Bills took $650,000. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Braves led Major League Baseball with $450,000, while the Minnesota Wild received the most of any National Hockey League team with $570,000.
In addition, the Army National Guard paid the New York Jets $20,000 for a Hometown Hero video board feature, and paid the Milwaukee Brewers $49,000 for the Sunday singing of “God Bless America.”
The Senate report condemned the practice as “paid patriotism,” with 72 contracts containing items such as on-field color guards, field-sized American flags, fireworks, enlistment ceremonies, national anthem performances, hometown hero and wounded warrior tributes and other examples. Further, the report found the DOD could not account for all of the contracts it awarded or how much was spent, with an official response to the senators’ request accounting for only 62 percent of 122 contracts with major league teams, and 70 percent of the more than $10 million spent on the contracts.
Further, although the DOD indicated that the contracts were designed to support recruiting, the Department did not uniformly measure if the activities under the contract had an impact on recruiting.
“Given the immense sacrifices made by our service members, it seems more appropriate that any organization with a genuine interest in honoring them, and deriving public credit as a result, should do so at its own expense and not at that of the American taxpayer,” the report said. “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.”
In November 2015, Sen. McCain issued a statement arguing that Americans should be “deeply disappointed” that these ceremonies honoring troops were conducted not out of a sense of patriotism, but rather were done “for profit in the form of millions in taxpayer dollars going from the Department of Defense to wealthy pro sports franchises.”
In May 2016, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote to Senators McCain and Flake and announced that pro football would repay $723,734 to the taxpayers for these paid patriotic events.
“In order to ensure that military appreciation activities remain separate from military recruitment efforts in the future, the NFL will include an assessment of marketing contracts in our regular internal audit reviews,” Goodell wrote.
Given the contractual relationship that the NFL and the military maintained, and the close ties between the two institutions, it is no wonder that the league has reacted so negatively to recent acts of defiance by Black players. For the NFL — with its military family reunions and Salute to Service program that raises funds for the troops — patriotism is a brand, and the latest round of protest precipitated by Kaepernick is ruining that brand, as Think Progress reported in August. Never mind that the player’s decision to take a knee is the ultimate form of patriotism — taking a stand against the government in support of liberties that are not applied equitably, and sacrificing everything for it. But apparently, that was not in the Army’s contract with the NFL. Kaepernick haters should take note.