DoD paid $53 million of taxpayers' money to pro sports for military tributes, report says
November 6, 2015 12:00 AM
Matt Freed /Post-Gazette
Fans listen to the National Anthem before the start of the Blackhawks-Penguins game at Soldier Field in Chicago last year.
A report criticizes the Department of Defense for spending millions in sports marketing contracts, noting professional sports teams that took the money were engaged in “paid patriotism.”
By Paula Reed Ward / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
On-field events recognizing military service members — including ceremonial first pitches, honor guards and Jumbotron tributes — have become common at professional sports venues over the past several years.
Many in the stands assume the team or league puts on the tributes, but often it has been the Department of Defense, meaning tax dollars were used to foot the bill.
A report released Wednesday criticized the Department of Defense for spending millions in sports marketing contracts and called to task the professional sports teams that took the money, saying they were engaged in “paid patriotism.”
Prepared by U.S. Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, both Arizona Republicans, the report found that all military branches reported spending $53 million on marketing and advertising contracts with professional sports organizations between 2012 and 2015. More than $10 million of that went to the NFL, MLB, NHL, NBA and Major League Soccer.
“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 Pittsburgh, the amounts spent were small in comparison with contracts elsewhere. The Pittsburgh Steelers received $27,000 in fiscal year 2014, and the Pirates received $18,000.
But the report found higher spending by many entities, including the Georgia Army National Guard paying the Atlanta Falcons $879,000 in fiscal years 2012 to 2015, and the Massachusetts Army National Guard paying the New England Patriots $700,000 in fiscal years 2012 to 2014.
Since reports on the contracts first came to light last spring, the Defense Department has banned the practice, and the NFL has called on its teams to stop taking payment for such activities.
A Sept. 14 memo from the Under Secretary of Defense office said a review of sports marketing and advertising contracts revealed “some areas of concern,” that “could give rise to the perception that the department had paid for patriotism.
“Sports marketing and advertising is too important to the recruiting mission to allow these perceptions to detract from our message,” the letter said. “Our actions must be transparent, and our intent consistently focused on our mission: Sustaining the All-Volunteer Force.”
New interim rules require the service not to pay as part of any contract to honor Armed Forces personnel, including playing the national anthem, color guard demonstrations or enlistment ceremonies.
In a letter dated Nov. 2, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote that an audit of all club contracts with the military is being conducted to ensure that recruitment efforts are kept separate from the NFL’s recognition and appreciation events for military members. Any inappropriate payments will be refunded in full, he said.
In the NFL’s AFC North, the Ravens had the biggest contracts, receiving $534,000 from the Maryland Army National Guard in fiscal years 2012 and 2013.
The Steelers came in second at $27,000 in fiscal year 2014; the Cleveland Browns were paid $10,000 by the U.S. Air Force for one color guard ceremony in fiscal year 2012; and the Cincinnati Bengals got $4,960 for 60 club-level seats bought by the 338th Recruiting Squadron in Fiscal Year 2013.
Steelers spokesman Burt Lauten said he believes the Senate report mischaracterizes the team’s relationship with the military.
“The advertising and promotion the military does with the Steelers to advance its recruiting efforts has no connection to the programs the Steelers have that provide an opportunity for our fans to salute our military veterans and active service members,” he said.
In Major League Baseball, the Atlanta Braves received the biggest contracts, getting $450,000 in fiscal years 2013 to 2015 from the Georgia Army National Guard.
The Pirates received $18,000 from the U.S. Air Force in fiscal year 2014, which included an Air Force performance of the national anthem and on-field swearing-in for the delayed entry program as well as 250 game tickets for members and their friends and family.
According to Brian Warecki, a Pirates spokesman, the contract also gave the Air Force the right to set up a booth for recruiting on Federal Street for six games and to present the colors at several games.
“Our small marketing partnership agreement with the Air Force is consistent with similar agreements with organizations looking to engage with the thousands of fans who attend Pirates games and is insignificant in relation to our support of the military," Mr. Warecki said.
He listed a number of military appreciation events hosted by the Pirates throughout the year, including every Thursday home game. The team also donated raffle proceeds to military and veterans charity programs and raised funds for veterans programs at PirateFest, as well as giving away tickets.
“In short, the Pirates and Pirates Charities are meaningful supporters of the military and honor, recognize and contribute to its causes in very real and significant ways and all outside of any marketing partnership,” Mr. Warecki said.
In the senators’ report regarding the National Hockey League, the Penguins were not mentioned.
Tom McMillan, vice president of communications for the Penguins, said none of the veterans appreciation events that occur with the team come from paid military contracts.
The team regularly includes a “Hometown Hero,” who is invited to join Jeff Jimerson as he sings the national anthem, and other military members are chosen to ride on the Zambonis at intermission. For Veterans Day, the team normally brings in 10 to 15 soldiers injured in the line of duty to watch the morning skate and then meet the team and get personalized jerseys.
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