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.
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.
And this is our second selection, improbably, first run on The Guardian (UK).
This is the power of the NFL: it can brand something you respect into something nauseous. I have a lifelong fascination with the military: my grandfathers were pilots in WWII, one also in Korea. My stepfather, a man I love and respect, only retired from the Air Force this decade. I attended high school near Eglin Air Force Base, living out near Range Road, where you could sit on your roof at night and watch the bomb tests light up the underside of clouds. Most of my friends’ dads were in the service.
But just like that friend’s dad who got in your face all OORAH about how you could never dare question him (on anything) when you knew in reality that he ran Quicken for the 101st Chairborne, doing sorties on Excel columns, the NFL doesn’t have an off switch on its deployment of big words like battle and sacrifice. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell glad-handing veterans who’ve lost something, smirking under a flyover, is another avatar of the rear-echelon dudes who spent their Iraq War scanning the base doppler for tornados in the midwest and up-armoring their word rage to combat the “libturd” War on Christmas, daring you to question those who do their duty. The NFL is in the business of not being questioned, and the troops are its favorite accessory.
Complaints about the creeping militarization of the NFL are almost as old as complaints about how current finesse dynasties always get the defensive pass interference calls, and their ubiquity reduces them to the angsty hum of a punk band tuning all their guitars to drop-D. But this last year reified the issue as something worthy of consideration to more than just teens hoping to annoy dad. The NFL, which swaddles itself in camouflage to honor the troops, allowed 14 teams to charge the Department of Defense $5.4m for the privilege of their own honor, over four years.
That the NFL found a way to monetize patriotism shouldn’t surprise anyone; the only surprise is how efficiently and directly they did it. This sort of behavior is par for the course with the NFL. Every October, it puts its athletes in pink shoes, pink towels, gives refs pink penalty flags and sells “authentic” alternate pink jerseys to promote breast cancer awareness. The proceeds from these sales do not go breast cancer research, and what little escapes the wholesaler, distributor and retailer goes toward promoting screening and awareness. The NFL doesn’t directly profit, but its friends do.
Last year, facing tremendous blowback for suspending Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice a mere two games after knocking out his then-fiancée Janay on tape, the NFL rolled out No More, its domestic violence partner. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, No More does absolutely nothing, apart from vaguely aspirational things about “awareness”, which is corporate-speak for “results- and effort-free tax deduction”. Although you can buy merchandise!
Crossing the military-sports boundary is nothing new. George Carlin’s famous routine about the difference between baseball and football pays off so well because his description of football is laden with all the casual military metaphors self-important NFL commentators have injected into the game to make sure nobody dares take it anything less than deadly seriously.
Other sports have gotten in on the act for mercenary but at least more organic reasons. San Diego, a town dependent on its naval base for its prosperity, features regular troop acknowledgments at games, and Padres players take the field in camouflage uniforms. Tampa Bay, home to MacDill Air Force Base and CENTCOM, also sends out the Rays in camouflage uniforms and sets aside discount sections for active-duty servicemen. Both these teams struggle against the allure of the beach and vacation nightlife to fill seats, so their motives aren’t pure, but they are at least speaking to a significant local population that shapes the region.
Beyond teams with local military fanbases, Major League Baseball learned that releasing authentic camouflage jerseys and red-white-and-blue jerseys for Memorial Day and July 4th meant another vector for selling $140 garments that look and feel like grandpa’s old nightshirt designed to sweat out a fever.
But if these other developments are a bit mercenary, only the NFL feels like it’s fully embraced outright camouflage-washing. Take an embattled brand, wrap it up in Desert MARPAT and dare anyone to start jeering at it.
Goodell and company have – barring any generalized sense of competency that we’d ascribe to a functionally non-malignant business – proved that they are masters at a certain kind of craven canniness, and they and plenty of others have noticed the numerous opportunities for cynical capitalization. Far from the behavior of the founders (Washington, say, who deliberately patterned his life after Cincinnatus), or even of the Brokaw-dubbed Greatest Generation (in which roughly maybe one-sixteenth of personnel saw serious combat), we have nationally balked at applying any differentiation or critique to the roles of any active duty personnel in the Wars on Terror, Afghanistan, Iraq or ISIS. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes was broadly slammed for suggesting his discomfort at the overuse of hero, because that is the brand now.
What a boon environment for a “non-profit” cartel flush with billions that socializes the debts for new stadiums by plundering municipalities and then privatizing the profits, that threatens to lockout the laborers who give the sport its only reason for existence when they ask for a fraction more money to continue at jobs that give them potentially terminal brain damage. Yeah, that’s all bad, but what are you going to do, piss on troop Koop A Trooper from Camp McTrooperton? It’s hard to sneer at spectacle when it keeps being interrupted for guys with prosthetic legs surprising their families at midfield. “Dad!” “Hey, son! I’m not dead!” Or, to take a recent example, when the NFL arranges the heartwarming reunion of a soldier and his cheerleader wife. Nobody watching from the stands is likely to know that the former is a member of the obscenely wealthy Anheuser-Busch family, and the latter is a member of a well-connected political family.
The NFL is the only organization that responds to people’s wincing in awkward embarrassment as if it were some sort of cue that the embarrassing thing wasn’t done intensely or often enough, and they long ago went all-in on draping themselves in the blood and bones of others to attain some whiff of contact legitimacy. All the “FOOTBALL IS WAR” rhetoric might have started out as easy tropes for a lazy commentariat, but that stuff isn’t accidental anymore. That’s branding, and every flyover or unfurling of an America-shaped American flag by combat veterans is a deliberate, crass attempt to so wholly synonymize the fiscal upward-suction of the NFL with terms like valor, duty and honor. The more we salute the business’ use of soldiers, the more we render a predatory business unassailable. It’s brand synergy between the moneyed and profane and what we consider nationally sacred. It’s the same emotionally exploitative and cynical impulse that leads some fobbit to start waving his Green Zone Participation Medal in people’s faces to justify some hateful online rant about how the Brewton, Alabama, nativity scene is under attack by sharia disguised as liberals. There is no level of stupid that can’t be camowashed, and the NFL knows it.
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