How the NFL sold patriotism to the U.S. military for millions

Standing for the national anthem is a new concept that may have coincided with a government marketing campaign.

Army Lt. Col. Joe Edstrom holds an American flag before an NFL football game Sunday, November 13, 2011, in Chicago. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Army Lt. Col. Joe Edstrom holds an American flag before an NFL football game Sunday, November 13, 2011, in Chicago. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

President Donald Trump spent much of the weekend complaining to anyone who would listen about his disdain for the many NFL players protesting police brutality by taking a knee during the national anthem. Refusing to show respect for those shows of patriotism, he claimed, was abhorrent.

“If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem,” Trump tweeted on Saturday. “If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”

He added that “sports fans should never condone players that do not stand proud for their National Anthem or their Country.”

“Courageous Patriots have fought and died for our great American Flag — we MUST honor and respect it! MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN,” he wrote.

What the president failed to acknowledge in his rant was that many of the military displays present at NFL games were, at one time, financed by the government. Rather than organic, wholesome expressions of patriotism — the kind Trump has claimed NFL players are disrespectfully protesting — the tradition of players standing for the national anthem is a recent tradition that may have coincided with a marketing ploy meant to sell cheap, manufactured nationalism.

As recently as 2015, the Department of Defense was doling out millions to the NFL for such things as military flyovers, flag unfurlings, emotional color guard ceremonies, enlistment campaigns, and — interestingly enough — national anthem performances. Additionally, according to Vice, the NFL’s policy on players standing for the national anthem also changed in 2009, with athletes “encouraged” thereafter to participate. Prior to that, teams were not given any specific instructions on the matter; some chose to remain in the locker room until after opening ceremonies were completed. (It’s unclear whether the policy change was implemented as a direct result of any Defense Department contracts.)

In 2015, Arizona Sens. Jeff Flake (R) and John McCain (R) revealed in a joint oversight report that nearly $5.4 million in taxpayer dollars had been paid out to 14 NFL teams between 2011 and 2014 to honor service members and put on elaborate, “patriotic salutes” to the military. Overall, they reported, “these displays of paid patriotism [were] included within the $6.8 million that the Department of Defense (DOD) [had] spent on sports marketing contracts since fiscal year 2012.”

Among the more wasteful expenditures were a payment to the Atlanta Falcons to have a National Guard member sing the national anthem and a payment to the Minnesota Vikings for the “‘opportunity’ to sponsor its military appreciation night.”

Overall, the Defense Department spent at least $10.4 million on “marketing and advertising contracts with professional sports teams” across the board between 2012 and 2015, although, the report noted, the department “[could not] accurately account” for the full number of contracts and payouts it had awarded. “It only reported 62 percent (76 of 122) of its contracts and 70 percent ($7.3 million) of its spending in its response to our inquiry,” the senators wrote.

“While well intentioned, we wonder just how many of these displays included a disclaimer that these events were in fact sponsored by the DOD at taxpayer expense,” they added. “Even with that disclosure, it is hard to understand how a team accepting taxpayer funds to sponsor a military appreciation game, or to recognize wounded warriors or returning troops, can be construed as anything other than paid patriotism.”

On Monday, actor and civil rights activist Jesse Williams took a similar tone, blasting the president for criticizing those players who had chosen to take a knee.

“This anthem thing is a scam. This is not actually part of football. This was invented in 2009 [by] the government paying the NFL to market military recruitment, to get more people to go off and fight wars to die,” he said in an interview with MSNBC. “This has nothing to do with the NFL or American pastime or tradition.” 

The NFL announced in May 2016 that it would refund $724,000 of the Defense Department payouts, which had been awarded for military “appreciate activities,” according to CNN Money. Defense Department spokespersons also confirmed that they had begun prohibiting military payouts for “patriotic ceremonies” in September 2015.