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Military tributes should be just that — tributes

The NFL’s Salute to Service program will honor members of the military during Sunday’s games.STEPHAN SAVOIA/ASSOCIATED PRESS/File 2014

Prepare to see your football covered in camouflage and served with a side of patriotism on Sunday. All 11 games, including the Patriots’ contest at Gillette Stadium with the Washington Redskins, are designated as part of the league’s Salute to Service program honoring the military.

There will be more camouflage on display than at the Bass Pro Shops — sideline apparel, headphones, gloves. The camo theme is fitting considering that Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona released a scathing report on Wednesday saying that many of the patriotic paeans, tearful reunions, and heartwarming tributes featuring servicemen and servicewomen conducted by professional sports teams were Department of Defense-paid advertising camouflaged as organic appreciation.


“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,” said the report.

Even if the pretenses weren’t entirely genuine, the heroes are, and so is the appreciation that flows from the stands toward veterans and active members of the military honored at sporting events. These displays of gratitude provide perspective that momentarily penetrates the Sports Bubble.

Sports, particularly football, have adopted some of the terminology and mentality of the military. The two are a natural and mutually beneficial marriage. The sports leagues get to cloak themselves in Americana, rather than wearing the black hat of billion-dollar businesses, while the military gets access to a coveted demographic.

There is a reason the logos of the NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball parrot the red, white, and blue colors of the flag.

Sporting events inspire patriotism, which is why people who don’t know Lionel Messi and Lionel Richie pronounce their first names differently still watch the United States in the men’s and women’s World Cup.


But it’s messy to have two beloved American institutions — pro sports and the military — engage each other on such a purely capitalistic level. It’s bad optics.

The NFL was front and center in the report with the Atlanta Falcons ($879,000) and the Patriots ($700,000) the two sports franchises that generated the most money from National Guard marketing agreements since 2012. Both teams contend those agreements never paid them for specific acts of patriotism during games.

Rather, they had standard marketing contracts with the Georgia and Massachusetts Army National Guards, respectively. As part of those deals, the teams threw in opportunities to pay homage to Guard members, patriotic perks.

The Patriots honored a soldier at each home game. The Celtics and Bruins were also cited in the report for honoring Army National Guard soldiers during games while also accepting advertising dollars.

“For more than two decades, the Kraft family and the New England Patriots have been honoring troops at our games,” said Patriots spokesman Stacey James in a statement. “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.

“That package includes various mediums of advertising, logo usage, tickets, parking, hospitality, and training camp engagements, to name a few. The tradition of honoring the brave men and women in all branches of our armed services at Patriots games is something that we will continue to do for generations to come.”


Since 2012, the Patriots have designated an empty seat to honor prisoners of war and those declared missing in action. This season, the team added a Row of Honor — five free seats for military members who are recognized at the game.

But pro teams have to ask themselves, is it right to treat those responsible for protecting America the same as Bank of America?

But that’s exactly what Falcons owner Arthur Blank did in a letter to his fans included in the McCain/Flake report.

“Our marketing and sponsorship agreement with the National Guard is designed to fulfill their objectives of increasing awareness and aiding in recruiting efforts, which has become more important in an all-volunteer service environment,” wrote Blank. “This is no different than any other sponsorship agreement in that it is structured to fit a business need.”

Given the risks and sacrifices associated with the particular “business” that the National Guard is in, Blank is misguided.

Convincing someone to join the military is a bit different than trying to prod them to purchase Pepsi or play daily fantasy football.

Statements like Blank’s make it seem these deals were about green and not the red, white, and blue.

McCain and Flake might be doing some political grandstanding and contract cherry-picking, but some of the allegations in the report are just shameful.

The National Guard paying the Vikings for the “opportunity” to sponsor the team’s military appreciation night and the Bills for a Salute to Service game.


That’s why commissioner Roger Goodell has pledged that the NFL will return any money paid specifically for patriotic tributes. It’s also ostensibly why this year the NFL has upped the amount of money donated from the Salute to Service games from $300 to $1,000 per point, shared by the three military nonprofit organizations the NFL is aligned with — the USO, the Pat Tillman Foundation, and the Wounded Warrior Project.

The Patriots are in the unusual situation of suiting up an active military member for their Salute to Service home game. Rookie long snapper Joe Cardona, drafted out of Navy in the fifth round, is an ensign stationed at the Naval Academy Prep School in Newport, R.I.

“It’s exciting. It’s an honor to be a part of, honestly,” said Cardona. “Obviously, any recognition we can give to service members out there is well deserved. It’s just a great opportunity for service members and veterans alike to be recognized for their sacrifices and what they’ve done and what they continue to do by those that are so grateful for it.”

That’s what every occasion to pay tribute to military members and veterans should be — an opportunity to say thanks for their service, not to service a client.

Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.