Senators accused the Pentagon and top sports leagues Wednesday of using taxpayers’ money to pay for some of the ceremonies honoring U.S. troops that have become staples of big-time American sporting events in a practice the lawmakers dubbed “paid patriotism.”
One baseball team charged the National Guard nearly $50,000 for a contract that sponsored the weekly singing of “God Bless America,” while other teams charged the military for contracts that included carrying the American flag during the national anthem.
Average fans probably thought the leagues and teams were celebrating the armed forces of their own doing and that tickets and other recognition of the troops were paid for out of the owners’ pockets. But, in reality, the Pentagon spent at least $6.8 million in taxpayers’ money on contracts that included at least some staged patriotic events, Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake concluded.
“To find out the taxpayer is paying for it, it cheapens the whole lot,” Mr. Flake said.
The issue is already being dealt with.
Mr. McCain and Mr. Flake attached a provision to the annual defense policy bill that forbids the Pentagon or National Guard units from paying for events where they are honored. President Obama vetoed that bill last month over unrelated spending fights, but the senators said Congress is about to produce a new version that will contain the same restriction — and they predicted Mr. Obama will sign that one.
After the senators began their investigation this fall, Pentagon officials changed their own procedures, insisting any big-ticket contracts get approval from higher-ups, and demanding after-action reports on events that cost more than $10,000.
Military officials defended some of the events as part of bigger drives to find new military recruits, and said they were paying for marketing or promotions, not for the honors bestowed on troops.
For their part, the sports leagues have told the senators they will try to weed out the practice from their end, signaling that they want to honor troops without making taxpayers pay for it.
In a letter dated Monday, National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell said he was launching an audit of teams’ contracts with the military to find out what had happened.
“If we find that inappropriate payments were made, they will be refunded in full. We will share the results of this review with you,” he wrote the two Arizona senators.
He also said the NFL takes seriously its role in honoring the sacrifices of troops, and said that “should never be a commercial transaction.”
The senators said the leagues and teams do a vast amount of good work for the military, and said the instances of paid patriotism shouldn’t detract from that.
Mr. McCain also said the teams and leagues cooperated with the senators’ requests — but he said that wasn’t true for the Pentagon, which provided only partisan data. Senate investigators had to uncover for themselves about a third of the questionable contracts.
And there are potentially more contracts still undiscovered, they said, which could raise the total amount of taxpayer money even higher, Mr. McCain said.
The senators’ 146-page report identified 18 NFL teams that had contracts including at least some questionable paid staging; 10 Major League Baseball teams; eight National Basketball Association teams; eight Major League Soccer teams; and six National Hockey League teams.
NASCAR and three universities — Indiana University, Purdue University and the University of Wisconsin — were also named.
In the Washington area, just one team was listed in the report. The D.C. Air National Guard paid $25,000 to the D.C. United soccer team for 10 tickets to a game.
Most of the contracts were between leagues and teams and Army National Guard units. The NFL’s New York Jets collected $20,000 for a “Hometown Hero” video feature on local guard troops, for example.
And the Wisconsin National Guard paid $49,000 for a contract that included sponsoring the signing of “God Bless America” at the Milwaukee Brewers’ Sunday baseball games.
But the service branches themselves were also involved, including the Air Force paying the L.A. Galaxy soccer team to recognize five high-ranking officers at a 2012 game and to secure four sideline season tickets.
Asked about the issue, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said he wasn’t sure whether President Obama “has carefully considered” the issue. He said it’s “appropriate” for crowds at sporting events to applaud service members in an “authentic gesture” to honor their service.
“That is separate and apart from what I think is a more illogical financial transaction between the Department of Defense and teams for things like signage or other advertising that could enhance the military’s ability to recruit,” he said.
• Dave Boyer contributed to this report.