You know the scene—a stadium full of 60,000 thankful fans gives a standing ovation as the Jumbotron shows members of the military, or an active-duty soldier shows up to surprise her family in a touching on-field reunion.
But most fans may not be aware of one key detail: These are paid advertisements by the U.S. Department of Defense, and taxpayers are footing the bill.
A joint oversight report released today by Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake found that roughly $6.8 million in taxpayer-funded marketing contracts with professional sports teams since 2012 have included "paid patriotism" events. (You can read the full report here.)
"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," the two stated in the introduction to the report. "It is hard to understand how a team accepting taxpayer funds to sponsor a military appreciation game, or to recognize wounded warriors or returning troops, can be construed as anything other than paid patriotism."
The report cited these instances of such activities:
- $49,000 to the Milwaukee Brewers for the Wisconsin Army National Guard to sponsor each Sunday performance of "God Bless America" during home games with announcement and logo recognition on the video board.
- $1,509 to the LA Galaxy to provide pregame recognition of five high-ranking officers of the U.S. Air Force and 100 general admission tickets to that game.
- $20,000 to the New York Jets to recognize one or two New Jersey Army National Guard soldiers as hometown heroes at each home game on the video board and Coaches Club access for the recognized soldiers and three guests.
Three NFL teams were the biggest beneficiaries: the Atlanta Falcons ($879,000), New England Patriots ($700,000) and Buffalo Bills ($650,000). The NHL's Minnesota Wild ($570,000) and the NFL's Baltimore Ravens ($534,000) rounded out the top five.
The two senators first uncovered the practice in April—Flake found that the New Jersey Army National Guard paid the New York Jets for segments at home games in which soldiers were featured on the big screen. Flake then asked the Department of Defense for records of all marketing contracts since 2012, but the material turned over by the Pentagon was misleading and incomplete, according to the report. Officials handed over about two-thirds of the 122 contracts that were identified by Senate investigators. Since uncovering the practice, the Defense Department has banned paid patriotism, and the NFL has told its teams to no longer accept payments for patriotic tributes at games.
"Despite our success curbing this inappropriate use of taxpayer funds, DoD still cannot fully account for the nature and extent of paid patriotism activities," according to the report.
While the Defense Department argues the contracts are used for recruitment purposes, they can't prove a return on their investment, the report found. "The Department doesn't uniformly measure how and whether the activities under contract are actually contributing to recruiting," it said.
The report did allow that some of what was contracted appeared to be legitimate marketing and advertising activities—stadium signs, social media mentions, booth space for recruiters at games—for which they would expect teams to be compensated.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said the league will give back any proceeds from paid patriotism:
.@NFL commissioner Roger Goodell says league intends to refund money its teams received for paid patriotism, like tributes to U.S. troops— Eben Novy-Williams (@novy_williams) November 4, 2015