— -- Some of the tear-jerking moments honoring U.S. heroes at sporting events may have been paid for, the NFL admitted today.
ABC News first reported last November on documents it exclusively obtained showing more than 70 contracts with specific mentions of patriotic moments for which major league sports received taxpayer money to stage, totaling more than $6 million in taxpayer money.
In a letter released exclusively by ABC News to the senators investigating the practice, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell admits, following an independent audit of “contracts between NFL clubs and the military,” that more than $700,000 in payments may not have been used for recruitment activities, but instead for honoring troops.
“On this basis, the audit identified $723,734 over those four seasons that may have been mistakenly applied to appreciation activities rather than recruitment efforts,” Goodell explains in the letter. “This amount will be promptly returned in full to the taxpayers.”
Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain, both R-Ariz, the senators investigating the allegations, praised the NFL in an interview with ABC News for its response, saying it is the first time either of them can remember an organization admitting it may have been at fault and taking action to rectify.
“This is the first time that I can remember where an organization has not only owned up to it but actually sought to make it right,” Flake said. “They immediately launched an investigation of their own, did an independent audit where they found they had accepted this money. They decided to give it back. That’s a great thing.”
McCain agreed, saying that other organizations should follow and adding they closed the “loophole” in last year’s defense bill to no longer allow such practice, but that shouldn’t stop the other sports leagues from paying back previous years’ funds.
“Now we have some other organizations we want them to do the same thing and those organizations. Sen. Flake and I will be exercising the same gentle persuasion we did with the NFL,” he said.
Neither senator has heard from other leagues about audits or refunding taxpayer money.
“The NFL set the right example here by saying, ‘Hey, we are going to do an audit.’ They did, where they found money that was questionable and they decided to pay it back. So I hope the other organizations look at this and say we ought to be as proactive as the NFL has done,” Flake said.
But, the senators add, the Department of Defense should have never authorized such payments to begin with.
“It was like pulling teeth for Sen. McCain and myself to get information out of DOD,” Flake said. “I always felt, I think we both always felt the DOD was the major party at fault here and that's why we went after them [with legislation].”
Last year, the leagues and teams denied they charged for patriotic displays, saying these events were free add-ons to big marketing contracts. In addition, the Department of Defense told ABC News last year that military tributes, such as color guards, military bands and troop formations, are a “no-cost addition to the agreements.”
“In some specific cases, recruiters believed that showcasing local troops would be a great way to connect with the American public and their recruiting audience to inspire service,” a statement from the DOD said. “However, in some instances it created the perception that these were traditional community outreach activities as opposed to a paid activity.”