Our Soldiers and the NFL

By Rich Harwood

Another Veterans Day passed last week with all the pomp and ceremonies and solemnness we have come to expect – and that many of us cherish as we honor those who have protected us, especially in an increasingly dangerous world. What I didn’t expect was to learn that the NFL and many of its teams (along with professional basketball, baseball and hockey, among others) have been paid to honor our soldiers at games.

It’s called “paid patriotism,” and it stinks.

Just two weeks ago, U.S. Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake (both of Arizona) released a new report that detailed $6.8 million in payments over four years to pro sports teams to recognize and honor our soldiers at games. According to the report, teams were paid for on-field color guard ceremonies, the singing of the national anthem, ceremonial first pitches and other tributes.

The Department of Defense explained these expenditures as part of its ongoing military recruitment. Of course, we’re accustomed to the various paid advertisements we routinely see on television and elsewhere to recruit military members. “Be All You Can Be” is a slogan many of us can hear ringing in our own minds after years of U.S. Army ads.

But the U.S. government paying for tributes by sports leagues and teams, including colleges and universities, crosses a line. So, too, does the NFL and other organizations seeking payments. Clearly, this is a question of appropriateness. But it’s much more than that. It goes to the heart of the meaning of patriotism and authenticity.

Patriotism is defined as “love of country.” When we honor our servicemen and women, we are expressing that love. When we stand at ballgames to applaud their efforts, we are demonstrating our individual and collective respect and support. These actions are a sign that we are each part of something larger than ourselves. They signal our commitment to those who serve, even if, or especially if, we may not support a particular military mission or engagement.

I wrote some years ago about my experience as a season ticket holder of the Washington Capitals hockey team (which I can gladly report hasn’t taken any DOD payments for paid patriotism) when men and women in uniform were regularly honored at games. At the time I wrote:

“During many games in the Verizon Center people are asked to recognize those soldiers in attendance. A prolonged, standing ovation ensues; indeed, as opposition to the [Iraq] war has increased over the last year or two, the length and intensity of the ovation has only expanded. I cannot describe the feeling.”

As I reread those lines I am immediately transported back to those precious moments. Amid divisions and name-calling in our politics and public discourse, we Americans stood together. I went on in that piece to write about our implicit covenant with soldiers we ask to go into harm’s way and the need for us to meet our commitment to them when they return home. I have written many times on that subject.

But here I wish to focus on paid patriotism. Is there such a thing? Can one be paid to be patriotic? Should one be paid to be patriotic? Surely, love of country must come from an authentic place. It must come from a voluntary act. It comes from our hearts. As I suggested above regarding the Iraq War, such patriotism often comes even when we disapprove of what our country is doing. This is in part the definition of love: to stay attached when things are not going as we like.

Paid patriotism is at odds with genuine patriotism. Protecting the authenticity of our patriotism is a duty of citizenship. It should be a duty of our government, too. And shame on sports organizations that seek payment to express their patriotism.