The Perversion of Paid Patriotism

PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 20:  A giant flag covers the field as the national anthem is sung before the game between the Ph
PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 20: A giant flag covers the field as the national anthem is sung before the game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Dallas Cowboys on September 20, 2014 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

The relationship between sporting events and our armed services always seemed firmly based on pure patriotism. The men and women who serve our country in the armed forces certainly deserve recognition and respect. At these sporting events, fans appropriately stand and applaud the waving military. Now, thanks to a Congressional report, we find out that the Pentagon paid sports teams $6.8 million for these various "patriotic events" that honored soldiers and veterans.

There is nothing wrong with advertising and promoting the military services. Each of our armed services needs recruits. That is the only way the volunteer armed services can survive and thrive, especially in a time of what appears to be perpetual war. Although some politicians will rail against the practice of paying teams as a waste of public funds, that is not the real problem. The dysfunction lies in not disclosing the practice of paid patriotism.

Arizona Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake wrote in their report:

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

Teams will respond to these disclosures with assurances that they would have done the same thing without the hundreds of thousands of dollars the teams received. There is no way to know that, of course. Even if patriotic events now continue after the payments have ceased, some will charge that it is simply too late in the game. Paid patriotism has poisoned the well.

Patriotism was a late arrival at the nation's sporting events. The tradition of performing the National Anthem before every baseball game only began during World War II, although it had occasionally been sung in a few baseball parks as early as the late Nineteenth Century. Now it is hard to imagine a Super Bowl without a military flyover.

Those old enough to remember the divisiveness of the Vietnam era may still find extolling the virtues of our military to be difficult. Some have noticed the increase in recent years in ceremonial devotions to those in active service and to veterans. Now they can understand that these were not self-generated or spontaneous observances. They were paid advertisements by the Pentagon.

The armed services advertise on television as a regular matter, including sponsoring sporting events. In that setting, viewers can understand the ads -- which happen to be very well produced -- to be what they are. They are paid advertisements. Those advertisements work to increase enlistments. It is hard to criticize this effort. But the sports tributes out at the ballpark or in the arena were much more like subliminal advertising. Home teams already hold the affection of their fans. They sell that affection to advertisers whose signs litter the stadia and arenas. They also marketed this affection to the military without telling us they were doing so in exchange for substantial payments just like those made by Budweiser.

The sports teams should be embarrassed by these disclosures, and it would be appropriate for each to donate the amounts they received to a charity -- perhaps one that helps the returning veterans who could have used the Pentagon's money in the first place.