When leagues pay for patriotic acts, sports fans cover the cost

Mark Smith for ESPN

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Dec. 7 WR Issue. Subscribe today!

THE INFLUENCE OF the military represents the most significant and uncomfortable change in sports in post-9/11 America. Significant because the game, on TV and at the stadium, has been awash in military overtones since the destruction of the World Trade Center, and uncomfortable because the root of the change has been an unstable metastasizing of fear, nationalism, patriotism -- and especially commerce. Like green and organic, patriotism has devolved into a lucrative Good Housekeeping seal for marketers everywhere.

Sporting events often resemble exhibitions sponsored by the Pentagon. The New York Mets and San Diego Padres routinely wear camouflage alternate jerseys. Football coaches wear camo gear and headsets. Sections of uniformed military personnel receive gratuitous camera time. Instead of patriotic, sports feel inauthentic, pandering, manipulative.

Two Republican senators from Arizona -- Vietnam veteran John McCain and junior senator Jeff Flake -- recently released a report explaining the underside of stadium patriotism: For the past few years, the U.S. Department of Defense and the major sports leagues have embedded military-themed programs into the game-day experience, not for goodwill, not in support of the troops, but for money. McCain and Flake call it "paid patriotism" and say the DOD has spent at least $53 million of taxpayer money on at least 50 teams to stage these events, hoping to recruit new soldiers while duping fans into believing these gestures are voluntary expressions of teams' gratitude for returning soldiers. The two senators have drafted laws to make it stop. "It is time to allow major sports teams' legitimate tributes to our soldiers to shine with national pride rather than being cast under the pallor of marketing gimmicks paid for by American taxpayers," the 145-page report notes.

The U.S. remains involved in two armed conflicts, each more than a dozen years old. Terrorism fears allow the military presence in the culture to exist unquestioned, and those who do question it risk accusations of anti-Americanism. Still, McCain and Flake are correct: The public is being robbed of its tax money and its trust, and soldiers are being used. Following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, according to the report, the DOD paid the Patriots $700,000 of taxpayer money to stage military-themed events; the Red Sox were paid $100,000; the Celtics and Bruins took $195,000 and $280,000. The Wisconsin Army National Guard paid the Brewers $49,000 to play "God Bless America" at games in 2014 during the seventh-inning stretch. The Atlanta Falcons held a surprise homecoming during a game. The fans cheered, but the reunion wasn't organic or voluntary. The DOD has paid the Falcons $879,000 of taxpayer money since 2012 for the privilege. The TV shots of veterans and outfield-sized American flags look great. The announcers talk about honoring service. McCain and Flake say the practices are legal but morally fraudulent.

There is not just deceit in these practices but also an insulting distortion of history and images. The Chicago Blackhawks ostensibly honored Veterans Day with a camouflage jersey containing the Blackhawks' logo in the center, clearly uninterested in the colliding imagery -- the systematic removal of native tribes occurred at the hands of the U.S. Army. Since 9/11, America has conflated the armed forces with first responders, creating a mishmash of anthem-singing cops and surprise homecomings in a time of Ferguson and militarized police. Tensions mount in aggrieved communities, yet the LA Dodgers pandered to police by holding Law Enforcement Appreciation Night in September.

The leagues dispute the idea that they are misleading the public; MLB says the cost for promotional events exceeds what it charges the military and is encouraging teams to "take steps to avoid any appearance that they are being paid by a military organization for any such ceremonies." Regardless, what McCain and Flake want is transparency, and after 14 years of war, it has all gone too far. The real question is why both sides -- the military and the billion-dollar sports industry -- feel this embedding is necessary. Maybe fans should again be allowed to watch a game without having to guess when they're being recruited by the National Guard, and maybe instead of billionaires profiting off veterans, the best way to honor returning soldiers is to hire them.