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Galaxy was among teams that got U.S. funds for displays of patriotism

A military color guard stands at attention for the singing of the national anthem before an NFL game between the Dolphins and the Jaguars in Jacksonville, Fla., on Sept. 20, 2015.

A military color guard stands at attention for the singing of the national anthem before an NFL game between the Dolphins and the Jaguars in Jacksonville, Fla., on Sept. 20, 2015.

(Phelan M. Ebenhack / Associated Press)

Three years ago, the Galaxy agreed to honor five high-ranking Air Force officers before a home game and also facilitate a seven-minute enlistment ceremony on the field for 500 recruits before another game.

These weren’t altruistic displays of patriotism. Instead, they were part of a $20,000 advertising contract between the Galaxy and the Air Force that included hundreds of general admission tickets and four season sideline passes.

The Galaxy and California’s three NFL franchises are among the teams that the Department of Defense paid an estimated $6.8 million over the past four years for such patriotic events, according to a report by Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, two Arizona Republicans, that was released Wednesday.

“If the most compelling message about military service we can deliver to prospective recruits and influencers is the promise of game tickets, gifts and player appearances, we need to rethink our approach to how we are inspiring qualified men and women to military service,” the report said.

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The Galaxy’s recognition of the five Air Force officers is highlighted among 146 pages of details about the Defense Department’s paying other teams to welcome troops returning from deployments or for the opportunity to perform the national anthem.

A spokesman for the Galaxy declined to comment on the Air Force contract, but noted that the one-year partnership didn’t continue.

“Some of the displays funded in these contracts defy explanation as a legitimate recruiting expense and may be little more than a taxpayer-funded boondoggle,” the report said.

The practice drew national scrutiny in May when McCain questioned the National Guard’s spending on professional sports advertising in a report on government waste.

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The report issued Wednesday found that 72 of the 122 contracts analyzed — accounting for more than 50 teams in five professional leagues — included compensation for what it termed “paid patriotism.” But the report said that the Defense Department didn’t know how many contracts had been issued or the total spent.

What is clear is the prominent role played by the NFL. The report lists 18 franchises as receiving money in exchange for patriotic displays involving the military.

As part of a two-year, $453,000 deal with the California Army National Guard, for example, the San Diego Chargers offered the Guard an opportunity to participate in “one large American flag presentation” before five home games.

An agreement between the Guard and the Oakland Raiders included a color guard ceremony for each home game, the chance for four Guard soldiers and four guests to participate in the “tunnel of influence” as the Raiders took the field and an enlistment ceremony.

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The Guard canceled the Raiders contract in July and didn’t exercise a 2015 option for the deal with the Chargers.

The Guard also had a contract with the San Francisco 49ers for $125,000 in 2014. It included four upper bowl seats to each home game and the ability to host an event for up to 200 people at the 49ers’ facility.

In a letter sent Monday to McCain and Flake, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said the league is auditing all contracts between its franchises and the Defense Department to see if recruitment funds were used for tributes. Earlier this year, the league told franchises that on-field military recognition or other activities that aren’t “in the form of recruitment or advertising” should not be compensated.

“If we find that inappropriate payments were made, they will be refunded in full,” Goodell wrote.

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In September, the Defense Department prohibited all service branches from paying to honor military members as part of sports marketing contracts.

“To those unfamiliar with standard marketing … these concerns could give rise to the perception that the [Department of Defense] had ‘paid for patriotism’ or contracted for items that appeared to be personal in nature,” the Defense Department guideline said. “Sports marketing and advertising is too important to the recruiting mission to allow these perceptions to detract from our message.”

nathan.fenno@latimes.com

Twitter: @nathanfenno

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