Professional Sports Leagues Deny Charging for Military Tributes

Critics say some leagues and teams bill taxpayers to wave the flag.

ByABC News
November 3, 2015, 3:17 PM

— -- It has become an emotional staple of athletics in the post-9/11 world: patriotism at the stadium.

Some of those tear-jerking moments honoring U.S. heroes, however, are "paid acts of patriotism” and the practice is more widespread, ABC News has learned. The Pentagon buys on-field opportunities for military men and women to carry as part of marketing and advertising packages with more than 50 professional sports teams.

Moments such as unfurling the giant flag at a NFL Buffalo Bills game or even throwing out the first pitch at three MLB Milwaukee Brewers games, and rappelling down a rope at center ice to drop the puck at a Minnesota Wild game. All paid for.

“These teams do a lot of good work,” Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., told ABC News. “The problem is when activities like this are paid for by the tax payer, it cheapens everything else they do and that's why it ought to go away.”

The acts, which Flake describes as “paid patriotism” in the NFL, were first revealed this past spring, Congress demanded to see all the contracts between professional sports teams and the Department of Defense.

Those documents, obtained exclusively by ABC News, reveal 72 contracts that include specific mentions of patriotic moments when major league sports received taxpayer money to stage, totaling more than $6 million in taxpayer money.

“We have specific contracts spelling out $20,000 for a salute to the home town hero actually specifying how long something had to be on the jumbo tron or specific activities,” Flake said.

The leagues and teams deny they charged for patriotic displays, saying these events were free add-ons to big marketing contracts.

The Milwaukee Brewers added that their policy is not to charge military men and women to attend their games.

And the Department of Defense told ABC News 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 said. “However, in some instances it created the perception that these were traditional community outreach activities as opposed to a paid activity.”

Meanwhile, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred told ABC News, “we’ve gone to the clubs and we’ve encouraged them to take steps to avoid any appearance that they’re being paid for any ceremonial, patriotic activities on the field.”

The NFL sent a letter to Congress, saying it is launching an independent audit to see whether their contracts included money for patriotic moments and, if so, the money will be refunded.