Paid Patriotism: The Pentagon’s Appalling Marketing Tool and Those Who Profited From It

Over the past four years, the Pentagon doled out over $9 million to professional sports teams in the NFL, MLB, NHL, NBA, and MLS.  $6.8 million of this was used to induce teams to stage patriotic displays, as revealed in a report by Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain, with the goal of promoting the armed forces and encouraging enlistment.

Reading the report immediately sent my mind back to recent events I’ve attended – dramatic on-field homecomings at major league baseball games, members of the armed forces waving to a standing ovation from hockey fans, and the like. I’ll admit I’m not much of a patriot (forgive me, I’m Canadian), yet something about the strategy just doesn’t sit right with me. I find it appalling that the Department of Defense would be willing to play on the patriotism of fans while using unknowing national heroes as walking advertisements, and equally disgusted that professional sports teams would accept compensation for the displays.

18 NFL teams are named in the report, including the hometown Patriots and my personally-favored Seattle Seahawks. 10 MLB teams are named, again the Boston squad among them, along with the World Series finalist NY Mets. 8 NBA teams, 6 NHL teams, and 8 MLS clubs also received benefits.

The Department of Defense has since rightly banned paid patriotism, and at least one league (the NFL) has told clubs not to accept payment for patriotic displays. Others, the NHL included, have yet to address the issue.

I sympathize with the teams’ justification for accepting money; oftentimes, these salutes are already practiced, why not benefit from it? Still, though the business logic is sound, professional sports clubs have to understand how accepting cash for a patriotic act cheapens the salute.

The fact that the money was ever offered I find even more disturbing, however. I can only imagine how it must feel to learn that an American football team was paid to allow you to present the flag before a game with fellow National Guard members. Certainly someone at the Department of Defense had to foresee that paying for patriotic acts would not only cheapen those displays but cast doubt on real, genuine displays at professional sporting events across the nation. I realize that at some level, propaganda is inevitable, but paid patriotism clearly crosses a line.

Worse still is the realization that behind the Department of Defense’s embarrassing marketing ploy were American taxpayers. Americans were essentially paying to be subjected to feigned displays of appreciation, and while the fans’ responses may be genuine, there was no need for money to be offered or accepted in order for such displays to happen.

I understand that the Department of Defense is tasked with marketing national service to Americans, but paying teams to use America’s wounded warriors in live mass advertisements is wrong on a number of levels. All who were involved in these exchanges should be ashamed, and I applaud the work of McCain and Flake in bringing the issue to light. While I’d love to see the funds returned to taxpayers, the Senators’ recommendation that teams donate the funds to organizations that help veterans is a realistic alternative.

The Department of Defense didn’t just waste taxpayer funds, they abused taxpayer funds for a truly reprehensible purpose. The damage is done, however, and those who profited should seek to make things right. The Department of Defense, meanwhile, needs to rethink military service marketing and refuse to deceive the public with spurious propaganda. I’d like to think that the Pentagon is above dishonest recruiting tactics, here’s hoping this is the last time they prove me wrong.