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Only a Game: Paid Patriotism

Other | December 3, 2015

This week, Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, both Arizona Republicans, released a major investigation into publicity spending by the US Department of Defense, specifically into the practice of “paid patriotism.” Paid patriotism refers to the DoD’s practice of awarding publicity contracts to major sports teams, ostensibly for recruiting purposes. Some of this money is used for run-of-the-mill recruiting purposes, like the creation of pop-up recruitment centers at stadiums. But the investigation also found that millions of dollars per year were paid to major professional sports teams for displays of patriotism with which any sports fan will be familiar: football field-sized American flags, the honoring of “hometown heroes,” and the awarding of free tickets to service people, among other things. While money was spent in a fascinating number of ways—including $700,000 to sponsor something called the “Iron Dog Snowmobile Race” and a somewhat incongruous $7,000 to the Alamo City Comic Con—the NFL received the most money out of all the major sports leagues, with individual teams taking in hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to do things that they probably would have done anyway.

This whole thing is, of course, tremendously stupid on the part of the DoD for a number of reasons. The report (which you can read in full here) mentions that contracts were poorly accounted for, and that the official DoD response to requests from the senators during the investigation only accounted for a little over half of the number of contracts they uncovered in total. In addition, the DoD could not connect the money they were spending for patriotic displays to any new recruits—this makes sense because teams never publically partnered with the DoD, spinning these displays of patriotism as purely altruistic efforts, a strategy that would logically make it difficult to move potential recruits along the path from the “look at this tribute to American servicepeople” phase, to the “here’s how you join up as well” endgame. Essentially, it’s a total waste of taxpayer dollars, with the recent Senate report saying as much.

While it’s clear that this was a case of overabundant stupidity on the part of the DoD, in terms of the NFL’s behavior, I’m a little more conflicted. On the one hand, the idea of accepting money in exchange for displays of patriotism is questionable at best—leaving aside how one feels about the US military or the US itself, paid patriotism seems unbearably cynical. On the other hand, patriotism is a huge part of the NFL’s business, outside of contracts directly from the DoD. In terms of advertising alone, the NFL brings in tremendous amounts of money by selling physical space or broadcast time to ads that are often dripping with patriotism—it’s part of the league’s business model to appear patriotic. It’s a crucial part of the NFL’s identity, too, from the colors of its logo to the lengths what it sees as traditional American values: the NFL rule of protecting the “integrity of the game” and giving the league unlimited authority to punish players who do so (entirely outside the purview of the legal system, mind you) is essentially an attempt to paint  The heavy-handed, often-illegal punishments for players who break this rule (insofar as such a vague rule can even be broken) are doled out, essentially, as part of a branding initiative. Given all of this, teams likely would have been encouraged to do this kind of thing anyway, in the same way that the league pushes Breast Cancer Awareness Month not only because it’s a nice thing to do, but also because they can make tons of money selling pink gear to fans. So why not take money to do advertisements that fit neatly within their brand strategy?

This is why, despite the bad taste the concept of “paid patriotism” leaves in my mouth, I find it hard to be outraged about the NFL’s behavior here. Part of it, certainly, is the farcical nature of the whole thing, including bureaucratic disorganization, inscrutable spending, and the generally lackadaisical manner in which it all ended—essentially, when the Senate report was published, the DoD came right out and promised to stop spending on “paid patriotism,” and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell promised to make teams give the endorsement money back.

Obviously, it’s frustrating to see that a government agency tasked with something as important as national defense is so willing to throw millions of dollars away. But despite my disappointment on behalf of the government, this kind of behavior is integral to the NFL’s existence in the first place. It’s simply too in-character to really push my buttons. The NFL had been getting paid for patriotism before this spending program came along, and it’ll keep getting paid now that it’s gone, too.

Find all my columns in this series here.