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Pentagon Quietly Paid Teams in All Major Sports to Honor Military

The Defense Department paid millions of dollars in the last several years to the wealthy owners of teams in every major sport for demonstrations of support for the military, a new Senate report says.

The Pentagon spent at least $6.8 million since fiscal 2012 on contracts with sports teams that included events such as welcoming home returning soldiers, parades on the field with a color guard, enlistment ceremonies, full-field flag details and ceremonial first pitches or puck drops.

So say Arizona Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, who summarized the results of a six-month probe in “Tackling Paid Patriotism,” a 150-page report released Wednesday.

It is unclear how many times the teams or the government disclosed that the patriotic events were taxpayer-funded, the report says.

Of 122 contracts that McCain and Flake reviewed, 72 included some sort of Pentagon-funded tribute.

“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,” wrote McCain and Flake in their report. “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 existence of the practice had been previously reported. But the McCain-Flake review shows that such contracts were more widespread among major sports teams than previously known. Teams that participated in government-sponsored patriotic events hailed from the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, the National Soccer League, NASCAR and several universities.

Most of the contracts were for the Army National Guard, even as it asked Congress for $100 million in unrequested funds in 2014 to cover pay and training, the senators observed.

Since the McCain-Flake investigation began, the practice has been restricted. The Pentagon issued interim guidance in September that bars payments to honor armed forces personnel.

To boost recruiting, the department will still conduct marketing and advertising during sports events and broadcasts, including commercials, other in-game announcements, signs and booth space, says Matthew Allen, a Pentagon spokesman. And so-called community outreach activities will still go on, but the Pentagon and the armed services won’t pay teams for it, he says. These activities include troops singing the national anthem, homecoming celebrations, color guards, military bands, flyovers and troop formations on the field.

Moreover, the fiscal 2016 defense authorization bill (HR 1735) would ban the practice. President Barack Obama vetoed that bill due to a disagreement over whether an increase in the defense budget should be allocated to a special war account. But he is expected to sign a revised version that will contain the paid-patriotism provision.

The senators suggested the dollar amount allocated for the programs in question could be higher than $6.8 million. The Pentagon is not able to fully account for its spending on such programs, nor measure their impact on recruiting, the reason for their existence, the senators said.

The Pentagon was not always forthcoming in its descriptions of the practices and even “materially misrepresented” facts in some replies to the senators, they said in the report.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote McCain and Flake Monday to affirm that the league ruled in July that anything other than “recruitment or advertising” should not be “performed for payment.” Goodell also said the NFL is conducting an audit of DoD contracts to ensure money meant for recruitment initiatives is not being inappropriately used for “tribute” activities.

Goodell also said the honor of supporting troops “should never be a commercial transaction.”

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