WASHINGTON -- The Department of Defense doled out as much as $6.8 million in taxpayer money to professional sports teams to honor the military at games and events over the past four years, an amount it has “downplayed” amid scrutiny, a report unveiled by two Senate Republicans on Wednesday found.
Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake began looking into the Defense Department’s spending of taxpayer dollars on military tributes in June after they discovered the New Jersey Army National Guard paid the New York Jets $115,000 to recognize soldiers at home games.
The 145-page report released Wednesday dives deeper, revealing that 72 of the 122 professional sports contracts analyzed contained items deemed “paid patriotism” -- the payment of taxpayer or Defense funds to teams in exchange for tributes like NFL’s “Salute to Service.” Honors paid for by the DOD were found not only in the NFL, but also the NBA, NHL, MLB and MLS. They included on-field color guard ceremonies, performances of the national anthem, and ceremonial first pitches and puck drops.
“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 states.
DOD spent $53 million on marketing and advertising contracts with sports teams from 2012 to 2015, the report found, but that also included legitimate ad campaigns such as stadium signs and social media mentions. However, it also included $6.8 million in contracts that contained activities the senators considered "inappropriate" patriotism for profit.
“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,” the report said.
The NFL’s Atlanta Falcons took more money from DOD than any other professional sports franchise. From 2012 to 2015, the Falcons received $879,000 from the Georgia Army National Guard for assorted promotions. The New England Patriots, Buffalo Bills and Baltimore Ravens each received at least $500,000 for similar activities over that span.
Overall, 50 teams across the five major professional leagues had contracts with the military, including 18 NFL teams that received more than $5.6 million over the four-year span. Ten MLB teams took nearly $900,000, and eight teams each from the NBA and MLS had similar contracts. Six NHL teams received money, and the Air Force paid more than $1.5 million to NASCAR.
Collegiate programs also benefited from such contracts. Indiana University and Purdue University received a total of $400,000 from the Indiana Army National Guard in 2014, according to the report. In exchange, the schools provided season football and men’s basketball tickets and a “VIP experience for four” that included an autographed football and on-field passes for the annual IU-Purdue football game. The University of Wisconsin received $170,000 for football and hockey gameday presentations in 2014, the report said.
After first uncovering DOD’s payments to teams, McCain and Flake attached an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2016 earlier this year to prohibit the Pentagon from spending taxpayer money to honor soldiers at sporting events. It also would have pressured the professional organizations paid in taxpayer money to donate those profits to groups supporting the armed forces, veterans and their families. Congress passed that defense spending bill last month, with the “paid patriotism” provision included, but President Barack Obama vetoed the bill for reasons unrelated to the amendment. The amendment remains in the legislation, McCain said Wednesday, and would become law if Obama signs a new version of it.
The NFL has previously said the McCain-Flake amendment “paints a completely distorted picture of the relationship between NFL teams and our military.” In a Nov. 2 memo that is included in the report and addressed to McCain and Flake, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell responded to the senators’ concerns that traditional marketing efforts “have not been kept separate” from displays meant solely to honor troops. The NFL issued guidance to teams in July that they shouldn't include such activities in their contracts with the military.
“We strongly oppose the use of recruitment funds for anything other than their proper purpose,” Goodell wrote, adding that the NFL will audit its teams’ government contracts and refund any money paid out inappropriately.
At a news conference Wednesday, McCain and Flake stressed that the sports leagues were more cooperative with their efforts than the Pentagon, which "was unusually and especially aggressive when trying to withhold this information," McCain said. That makes it hard to know exactly how much the Defense Department has spent on these activities, they said.
The senators note in the report that while the DOD and NFL said the purpose is to boost recruiting, the Pentagon has no measurement on whether the activities paid for are in fact contributing to recruiting.
“Even if we accept the DOD’s assurances that the young men and women watching these games may be sufficiently inspired to military service by a half-time reenlistment ceremony, some of the displays funded in these contracts defy explanation as a legitimate recruiting purpose and may be little more than a taxpayer-funded boondoggle,” the report states.
Ironically, the Pentagon’s decision to spend money on such activities appears to run counter to its current downsizing as a result of budget constraints. One example of this cited in the report shows that in 2014, the National Guard simultaneously spent millions on professional sports ads while requesting more funding from Congress to fill a $100 million “shortfall” to pay troops and conduct training.
Asked if soldiers knew the Pentagon had paid teams for these sorts of tributes, McCain said: "I've only talked to a few of them, but the ones we did talk to, obviously they did not know."
The Pentagon has already begun to react to McCain and Flake’s push to end the use of taxpayer dollars on such activities.
In a July memo contained in the report, Lt. Gen. Timothy J. Kadavy, the Army National Guard director, banned state National Guards from paying for the types of activities the senators deemed “paid patriotism,” including player appearances, color guard or national anthem performances, and the receiving of game tickets.
Acting Undersecretary of Defense Brad Carson issued similar guidance in another memo, dated Sept. 14, that banned sports marketing contracts that require payments “to honor members of the Armed Forces,” including national anthem performances and other displays.
But DOD “still cannot fully account for the nature and extent of paid patriotism activities,” the senators warned, noting that more than a third of the contracts in the report were not DOD discoveries but were instead unearthed by their own offices. The department’s “lack of internal controls for awarding, managing, and overseeing these contracts put them at excessive risk for waste, fraud, and abuse,” the report said.
McCain and Flake advised the DOD to stop signing onto contracts that could even smack of “impropriety.” Taking a jab at the department’s recruitment practices, the duo argued that if the most persuasive message the Pentagon can come up with is the promise of game tickets and gifts, then the U.S. needs to “rethink our approach to how we are inspiring qualified men and women to military service.”
This post has been updated with quotes and details from the press conference.
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