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The Pentagon's 'paid patriotism'

"We live in a cynical world," according to Jerry Maguire, the fictional hero in the 1996 movie about a sports agent dealing with a moral epiphany. Turns out, the world might not be quite cynical enough when it comes to sports marketing.

Call us hopelessly naïve, but we were a bit surprised to learn this week about the millions of dollars the U.S. Department of Defense has paid out to professional sports teams to stage events and ceremonies, many of them honoring service men and women prior to games. That a lump-in-the-throat moment like a flag unfurling or a surprise homecoming might have been bought and paid for with tax dollars is disconcerting to say the least.

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Ever watch some of these pregame events on YouTube? You'd have to be pretty hard-hearted not to find them compelling, not only to see such individuals honored after serving tours of duty in war zones but to proudly observe how the local team has stepped up to the proverbial plate (or end zone or rink or court) and staged something meaningful on their behalf.

Well, duh, they staged an event on their behalf. It was likely a business deal — a point made clear in the oversight report, "Tackling Paid Patriotism," put together by Arizona Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain. The report estimates that the military has spent $6.8 million on so-called paid patriotism since 2011 and found numerous instances in which it couldn't have been obvious to any observer that these various tributes represented financial transactions.

Take, for instance, how the New York Jets recognized one or two New Jersey Army National Guard soldiers as "hometown heroes" prior to every home game. The crowd got a chance to cheer for the soldiers who got a mention on the videoboard as well as "Coaches Club" tickets. But it wasn't mere patriotism that made that happen: It was a $20,000 check from the National Guard.

Now, before we go too far down the road of righteous indignation, we should also point out that the oversight report lacks much detail and lumps in a lot of standard marketing behavior in its condemnation. Baltimore Ravens fans, for instance, might be compelled to quickly turn to page 16 to find out how Charm City's franchise got included in the report only to discover this: The Ravens accepted $534,000 over a period of two years from the Pentagon with some of it going to pregame hospitality tents and co-branded rally towels offered as souvenirs.

Sorry, but that doesn't seem to be quite in the same category as a tearful reunion narrated by the stadium announcer (a point reinforced by a Ravens spokesman who told The Sun the team didn't accept money to "honor or salute our troops"). Surely, there are moments when it's perfectly acceptable for the Pentagon to advertise — like it or not, the all-volunteer military requires a bit of salesmanship or recruiting goals can't be reached, and advertisers often get special treatment at games. In turn, the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and other organizations also have a right to charge for advertising and product placement — and even to offer perks to those advertisers like preferred seats or hospitality suites to sweeten the deal. All that's pretty standard.

What the report fails to make clear is that the issue is more slippery than that. When does marketing cross a line? When is the public being conned? When should it be made clear that some emotion-packed moment of honoring the military is also underwritten by tax dollars? When do these arrangements amount to a "deceitful practice" now banned under the National Defense Authorization Act? Such distinctions require some modicum of judgment by all involved.

Whether the various pro sports leagues donate the profits they derived from military tributes to nonprofits that help veterans and their families, as Senators Flake and McCain recommend, is not especially relevant. The money is chump change in the world of big-time sports and big-time government spending. What makes the incident so frustrating is its moral ambiguity: Will veterans be better off if teams back off public acts of patriotism? Will the military suffer if marketing money goes elsewhere? As Jerry Maguire observed, it's a cynical, cynical world. And now the world deserves to be just a bit more suspicious and pessimistic.

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