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Military paid pro sports teams to honor soldiers, congressional report found

The Pentagon and National Guard paid professional sports teams to publicly honor soldiers at sporting events, according to a Senate oversight report released Wednesday that labeled the practice "inappropriate and frivolous."

Since the end of 2011, the military has spent $6.8 million on sports marketing contracts, according to the report, released by Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, both Republicans from Arizona.

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"By paying for such heartwarming displays like recognition of wounded warriors, surprise homecomings and on-field enlistment ceremonies, these displays lost their luster," the report said.

It is unclear how much of the money went to paid tributes.

The Maryland National Guard paid the Baltimore Ravens $534,500 in fiscal years 2013 and 2014, according to the report. A team spokesman said a sponsorship agreement was part of a military recruitment effort that paid for advertisements on the M&T Bank Stadium video screens, the team's website and radio broadcast, as well as a booth on the Ravenswalk.

The team also wore a Maryland National Guard patch on its practice jerseys.

"The agreement did not require us to honor or salute our troops and did not pay us for honoring or saluting our troops," Ravens spokesman Patrick M. Gleason said in a statement. "In fact, there are no references to honoring soldiers and/or the military in those contracts."

The congressional report singled out an $89,500 order "for the production of 30,000 co-branded rally towels and 20,000 co-branded hats" as an example of the Ravens engaging in what the senators called "paid patriotism."

In recent years, onfield flag rollouts and other ceremonies saluting military personnel have become commonplace at National Football League, Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association, National Hockey League and Major League Soccer games around the country.

The majority of the contracts analyzed in the report — 72 of 122 — showed that the Department of Defense paid for the tributes that included national anthem performances, ceremonial first pitches, puck drops, color guard presentations and enlistment ceremonies.

Most of the contracts, the investigation found, included VIP suites and game tickets most likely to be given to participating troops or recruiters working at events.

The practices outlined in the report, the senators said, have crossed the line between heartfelt gestures of goodwill and paid advertisements.

"We're all enthusiastic to receive our men and women who are serving in uniform honored at various sporting events," McCain said. "We are very grateful for that. Unfortunately, thanks to an in-depth investigation, a lot of that patriotism was paid for."

More than a third of the contracts highlighted in the report were not included in a list provided by the Pentagon, the senators said. Two-thirds of the contracts found in their own investigation or reported by the Department of Defense, they said, contained some form of "paid patriotism."

The 150-page report said that the Pentagon has not fully accounted for the "nature and extent" of the practice.

"It's like pulling teeth," Flake said of the Pentagon's lack of cooperation.

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In a July letter in response to the investigation, Ben Carson, then acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said a review of all sports marketing and advertising contracts would be conducted by the Pentagon and National Guard.

"The issues raised in your letter are concerning," Carson wrote to Flake.

The Department of Defense also has defended the practice in the past, arguing that the tributes are a valuable recruitment tool.

In one instance mentioned, the Air Force paid the Los Angeles Galaxy, a professional soccer team, to recognize five high-ranking officers during a 2012 game. In another case cited, the National Guard paid the Seattle Seahawks to allow 10 soldiers to re-enlist during an onfield ceremony before a 2014 game. The Wisconsin Army National Guard, it said, paid $49,000 to sponsor in part each Sunday performance of "God Bless America" at Milwaukee Brewers games.

Flake said he did not believe team owners and managers were aware of the practices that were ostensibly done in cooperation with their marketing personnel.

This year, the senators led an effort to amend a major defense spending bill to prohibit spending taxpayer dollars on the practice and called on teams to donate profits to the armed forces, veterans and their families. The senators said they are hopeful President Barack Obama will sign it.

In a Nov. 2 letter, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell informed the senators that an audit of all contracts between NFL teams and the military was being conducted to investigate recruitment funds. Any inappropriate payments, he wrote, would be refunded.

"We strongly oppose the use of recruitment funds for anything other than their proper purpose," Goodell wrote.

In a memo attached to the congressional report, the NFL outlined its long involvement with the military, which included some of Baltimore's contributions.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh was awarded the Salute to Service Award for inviting wounded troops as guests to every home game, and former running back Mike Anderson served in the Marines, according to the memo. Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas visited troops on the first NFL-United Service Organizations tour in 1966, the memo noted.

Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this article.

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