WASHINGTON — Those heart-warming patriotic performances you see at football games honoring wounded veterans to the soundtrack of “God Bless America”? They’re basically paid ads, brought to you by the Department of Defense.
A Senate investigation revealed Wednesday that the department has spent $6.8 million since 2012 on questionable marketing contracts with sports teams, including events to honor American soldiers at games as a recruitment strategy.
Of that amount, $700,000 went to the New England Patriots for the recognition of a Massachusetts Army National Guard soldier at each home game as part of a “true patriot” promotion, among other costs.
The Patriots were the second-largest recipients among professional sports franchises, after the Atlanta Falcons, in the amount of Pentagon payments cited in the report. The Buffalo Bills, Baltimore Ravens, and Minnesota Wild hockey team all were paid more than $500,000 to salute the troops.
Other Boston sports teams also received Pentagon payments, according to the report.
The Boston Bruins received $280,000 for a national anthem performance and color guard and reenlistment ceremony and other items. Calling it a “waste and abuse of taxpayer funds,” Senator John McCain in a press conference highlighted a National Guard payment to the Bruins for a luxury box for 18 people and an executive view suite for 25 on a military appreciation night.
The Boston Celtics received $195,000 in part to spotlight soldiers at home games. And the Boston Red Sox received $100,000.
“These tributes are as popular as the kiss cam. But when people assume this is a goodwill gesture and then find out the heart-felt moment is part of a taxpayer-funded marketing campaign, it cheapens the whole thing,” said Senator Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, in an interview with The Boston Globe.
In response to the Senate report, a Bruins spokesman said the team had initially started in-game salutes to military personnel without any advertising but various sponsors later signed on for advertising purposes.
“If we do not have a sponsor for these salutes in the future, we plan to continue them on the same merit on which they originated,” said Matthew Chmura, the team spokesman.
The Patriots, similarly, said the team has been honoring troops at its games for more than two decades. “Only recently, as a part of much larger advertising agreements utilized by the Massachusetts Army National Guard for recruitment and retention, have we tried to brand all of our army activations with them,’’ a Patriots spokesman said Wednesday night.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sent a letter to Flake and McCain this week saying the league is conducting an audit of all contracts between teams and the military and would return any money deemed inappropriate. Goodell said the league wants to honor the service of veterans and is “committed to the principle that this honor should never be a commercial transaction.”
A Celtics spokesman did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Red Sox said in a statement that their pregame ceremonies and in-game tributes honoring members of the armed forces are not part of a military-sponsored program. Military featured at Fenway are chosen based on their accomplishments in uniform, and in consultation with John Hancock, which sponsors the “Hats Off to Heroes” tribute, said Zineb Curran, a team spokesman.
“The Red Sox’ longstanding sponsorship agreement with the Mass. National Guard, which is highlighted in the report, is for marketing and advertising of the Guard – specifically LED advertising and in-park tabling – not for pregame ceremonies or military honors during the game,” Curran said.
John Henry, the principle owner of the Red Sox, also owns the Globe.
Flake said that he, along with fellow Arizona Republican McCain, launched the investigation in April after discovering that the weekly “hometown hero” tributes by the New England Patriots and New York Jets were actually Pentagon advertising contracts undisclosed by the teams.
McCain, a Vietnam War veteran and former prisoner of war, said taxpayers should be disappointed that the elaborate ceremonies involving the American flag and the national anthem are being conducted for the benefit of wealthy professional sports franchises. The Defense Department even paid teams to perform surprise welcome home promotions for troops returning from deployment.
In addition to the displays of patriotism, many of the contracts featured in the report included game tickets, the use of team facilities, and on-field recognition of high school football players and coaches as a way to gain access to potential recruits and influencers such as coaches — a tactic the 145-page report found questionable.
“If the most compelling message about military service we can deliver to prospective recruits and influencers is the promise of game tickets, gifts, and player appearances, we need to rethink our approach to how we are inspiring qualified men and women to military service,” the report said.
Overall, the Pentagon spent $53 million on marketing and advertising contracts with sports teams between 2012 and 2015, much of which appeared to be for legitimate marketing activities such as recruiting booths at games and stadium signs, the report found. But it raised concerns that the Defense Department had trouble accurately detailing how many contracts it has awarded or how the money was spent.
The report labeled the sporting event payments “boondoggles,” and said tax dollars for national defense should be spent on paying and training troops and other national security priorities. In addition to 50 professional teams spanning football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and soccer, the Defense Department also paid NASCAR and college teams for displays of patriotism.
Congress has passed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would prohibit the spending of tax dollars on such practices.
The Department of Defense media office did not return a request for comment Wednesday, but the Pentagon has said it would end this type of marketing.