NFL Defends Military Ties After Paid Patriotism Uncovered

Army Maj. Gen. Roger Mathews, U.S. Army Pacific deputy commander, looks on during the ceremonial coin toss at the 2012 NFL Pro Bowl game at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu, Hawaii. (U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth)
Army Maj. Gen. Roger Mathews, U.S. Army Pacific deputy commander, looks on during the ceremonial coin toss at the 2012 NFL Pro Bowl game at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu, Hawaii. (U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth)

NFL officials are firing back against Congressional criticism that the league received taxpayer-supported funds from the National Guard to pay tribute to U.S. military in patriotic displays at games.

The league reaction comes in response to actions from several Senators who presented legislation that would stop NFL teams from receiving "recruiting" or "advertising" money from the Defense Department to honor American soldiers at games.

The proposed amendment also calls upon the teams to donate profits from these efforts to charitable organizations that support members of the U.S. military, veterans and their families.

Senators John McCain, R-Ariz., Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., sponsored an amendment designed to stop NFL teams from receiving the funds.

A statement from McCain's office detailed a list of more than 20 NFL teams who have profited from the sponsored patriotism that included on-field flag roll outs, pre-game color guard ceremonies, half-time soldier recognition ceremonies and National Guard sponsored high-school player of the week recognitions.

Overall, NFL teams have received nearly $7 million in taxpayer dollars over the last three years from contracts with the Army National Guard which include public tributes to American troops.

A statement from the NFL says the proposed legislation takes the NFL's support of the U.S. military out of context and paints a "distorted picture."

"This amendment paints a completely distorted picture of the relationship between NFL teams and our military. We agree that no one should be paid to honor our troops. Military spending on recruiting efforts should not be confused with programs that support our nation's active military and veterans," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a written statement.

The NFL comments clearly seek to delineate advertising activities to support recruiting from other non-paid initiatives to support U.S. service members.

However, it is not clear how different these activities are from one another - and the NFL statement does not dispute or deny that teams received hundreds of thousands of dollars in funds sponsoring patriotic activities at games.

"The NFL's long history of honoring and supporting our troops will continue because it is the right thing to do," McCarthy added.

The NFL provided a list of programs the league participates in as a way to support to support the U.S. military to include USO activities going back to the 1960s during the Vietnam War.

NFL officials pointed out that the league has donated more than $4 million to its military non-profit partners through its "Salute to Service" merchandise sales program at stadiums. The NFL also said it recognizes troops regularly at the Draft, Super Bowl and Pro Bowl, adding that Pro Bowl practice has been set up at a military base at the stadium allowing thousands of troops to attend.

Additionally, the NFL has collaborated with the Army on medical research and scientific innovation, including a $500,000 grant to the Army Research Lab from the NFL, Under Armour, and GE's Head Health Challenge II initiative.

"The NFL works with the Army to combat traumatic brain injuries, establishing a partnership in 2012 to promote culture change in both organizations, especially as it relates to disclosing head injuries," according to a league statement.

However, the NFL is not denying claims by lawmakers that they are receiving taxpayer funds to support troops at games. McCain said he was "shocked and disappointed to learn that several NFL teams weren't sponsoring these activities out of the goodness of their own hearts, but were doing it to make an extra buck."

"At a time of crippling budget cuts under sequestration, the Defense Department cannot afford to waste its limited resources for the benefit of sports leagues that rake in billions of dollars a year," McCain said June 4 on the Senate floor.

McCain pointed to the New England Patriots "True Patriot" program honoring soldiers at half-time during games for which the Patriots have received $675,000 through contracts from the National Guard to conduct these events.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been paid by the National Guard to the Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills, Chicago Bears and many other NFL teams for various patriotic activities recognizing soldiers during games, the statement from McCain said.

"What makes these expenditures all the more troubling is that, at the same time that the Guard was spending millions on professional sports advertising, it was also running out of money for critical training for our troops," McCain said.

-- Kris Osborn can be reached at Kris.Osborn@military.com

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