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How The Pentagon Spent Millions On Sports Teams For Military-Friendly Events


Military participation in sports events is common. That includes everything from honor guards to service members singing the national anthem, throwing out the first pitch, or, in this instance, marking the end of the pregame program at a Minnesota Wild hockey game.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Please direct your attention high above the scoreboard and welcome Sergeant First Class Richard Babineau as he rappels down from the arena catwalk for tonight's ceremonial puck drop.

SIEGEL: That moment was, unbeknownst to fans who saw it, part of a $570,000 contract with the hockey club - a contract with the military. It's just one example of what's called paid patriotism, the subject of a report by Arizona's two Republican senators, one of whom, Senator Jeff Flake, joins us now.

Hi, welcome to the program.

JEFF FLAKE: Hey, thanks for having me on.

SIEGEL: How much did the taxpayers pay for this kind of paid patriotism?

FLAKE: Well, we were able to identify 72 contracts between the Department of Defense and the sports teams worth about $6.8 million, which included some form of paid patriotism in those contracts.

SIEGEL: Which do you find more troubling here, that the military paid sports teams for these patriotic moments, or that the sports teams require to be paid in order to honor people in uniform?

FLAKE: Well, the former. The military simply shouldn't be doing this. I've talked to a couple of the owners and the management at some of these teams, and frankly, I'd be surprised if any of them had any idea that this was going on.

SIEGEL: We learned about this in May. What's new in the report that you and Senator McCain, John McCain, have issued?

FLAKE: Well, in May, we had just uncovered just one contract, I think. It was with the New York Jets to honor the hometown heroes. And we called the Department of Defense and tried to get more information. They said, we'll get something to you in March of next year.

And so they really didn't want to get this information to us, but this represents about six months of investigating as well as getting information from the Department of Defense to have what we have today.

SIEGEL: Now, the Department of Defense cites a memo from September of this year, which I gather they say says that this practice is going to end. Do you read it that way?

FLAKE: Yes, and I do think that they will stop the practice and the sports teams certainly are going to do so. The Department of Defense is kind of saying, you know, we didn't do anything wrong but we're going to stop the practice anyway.

SIEGEL: Here's one possible defense of the Pentagon's behavior, and I want you to tell me what's wrong with it. The DOD spends a lot more money on actual commercials than on this program. The commercials are aimed at helping out recruitment. What they've done with the appearances is state-of-the-art advertising. It's product placement, you know? Service members appear on field, part of the event, as opposed to in the breaks. It's like the judges on "American Idol" drinking Coke, you know, this is sophisticated advertising these days.

FLAKE: (Laughter) I don't think that's much of a defense. Certainly nobody has a problem with marketing contracts with the teams. Our service branches need to go where the potential recruits are, and a lot them, they're at those games. But when you take an activity that a lot of these teams were doing before and will do long after and specify it in the contract, it just is a bit unseemly.

SIEGEL: Is there any indication that recruitment numbers were improved by this sort of thing?

FLAKE: You know, that's another problem. We've asked DOD for a long time to use some kind of metrics that shows us something.

SIEGEL: There is, I guess, there's another criticism that I read online this morning, which is that the amount of money at stake is - by Pentagon standards - extremely small. You can't buy a tank with what they spent on these contracts. And the argument is that the Senate investigation over six months may have cost almost as much as what the Pentagon would spend, say, this year. How do you answer that one?

FLAKE: (Laughter) Well, I can tell you the Senate investigation didn't cost that much, that was just undertaken by our staff. But it is - and I've mentioned that there's no lack of patriotism at these games. It's not like we have to gin it up with taxpayer dollars.

SIEGEL: Well, Senator Flake, thanks again for talking with us.

FLAKE: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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