The Pentagon has been writing checks to NFL teams for staging heartstring-plucking paeans to our military. It’s shocking -- although not because it’s an unlawfully undisclosed ad campaign.

Mind you, it surely is that. The Federal Trade Commission has been very clear and consistent that paid promotional messages must be identified as such. There is no Department of Defense exemption. Yet as first reported in the Bergen Record, the Pentagon has paid millions to 14 teams for gushing tributes to our men and women in uniform.  

But again, the stealth of the mission is utterly unsurprising. Operation Payola Freedom, in the history of Pentagon misfeasance and misdirection, is trivial. (See: the Dominican Republic, the Pentagon Papers, Grenada, Abu Ghraib, Pvt. Jessica Lynch, the friendly-fire death of Pat Tillman, "mission accomplished" and -- who knows, if Seymour Hersh is right -- maybe even the death of Osama bin Laden).



No -- what is stunning about this scandal is that the U.S. government found it necessary to pay for oleaginous tributes to our troops. That’s like paying teenagers to sulk. That’s like taking tanning beds to the Sahara. That’s like drilling for dirt. In the past 15 years, sporting events have become ground zero in the nation’s cult of military. Totally free of charge.

You know the gist. Play-by-play man: “Let’s take a moment to recognize the heroes putting everything on the line to defend our freedom.” Color commentator: “No question. The reason we can enjoy a football game is because of the sacrifices these brave men and women make every day.”

Then the fighter-jet flyover. Then a returning hero on the 50-yard-line, whether or not he ever got further forward than a Kuwait supply depot.

Remember when the “Star Spangled Banner” was sung before sporting contests and that fulfilled the day’s quota of patriotic outpouring? Those were from the olden times, when America evidently was exactly half as patriotic as it is now. Because now sports fans also belt out “God Bless America,” usually around the fourth inning.

If al Qaeda, the Taliban or ISIS create much more mischief, we’ll all be humming “Onward Christian Soldiers” straight through batting practice.

It’s not that we shouldn’t support our troops; of course we should. But that does not mean deifying them -- as presidents, garden-variety politicians and sideline reporters do now. We have surely come a long way from hippies shouting “Baby killer!”

Some believe the pendulum had fully swung at the end of the first Gulf War, when a victory parade in Washington, DC -- heavy armor and advanced weaponry on full display along with Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and the legions of triumphant semi-victors --  seemed to exorcise the demons of Vietnam. But the real transformation to jingoist military worship truly manifested on 9/11. 

Evil had been visited upon us, and our military would risk everything to protect us.

Such as in a ruinous, bloody, invented war. Yet for years the second Iraq fiasco was off limits for criticism, because any question about its premise, its strategy, its tactics, its reverses or its horrors was taken as a slur against our troops. We must support our troops, even by putting them unnecessarily, criminally in harm’s way over a lie.

If we truly cared about our soldiers, we’d insist they were not cannon fodder for the Messianic ambitions of a reckless cabal. But that’s what happens when songs in stadiums are conflated with patriotism. Love of country doesn’t reside in the biggest American flag, or lapel pins or bumper stickers, or for that matter, anthems. It resides in embracing the enduring values of the nation.

Those might include civil liberties, as enshrined in the Bill of Rights; rule of law, applicable to everyone, without fear or favor,  immigration, as in “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” and the American Way, the unique balance of individual freedom, individual responsibility and (Libertarians take note) individual interests subordinated to the commonweal.

Notably, patriotism does not mean blind fealty to anyone or anything, except possibly truth. One of the quirks about the National Guard pay-to-play scandal is that the whistleblower was not a bleeding-heart Democrat but Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona. He’s furious that the NFL teams were pretending to be generous in their sentiments, but now are exposed as manipulative, pandering opportunists.

Yeah. Exactly.



18 comments about "Patriotism-ola".
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  1. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, May 18, 2015 at 11:20 a.m.

    Or worse, exposed as....profiteers. Imagine. Note also that NFL teams is different from The National Football League.

  2. Brent Walker from Soundscapes, May 18, 2015 at 11:20 a.m.

    Thank you Bob for saying exactly what needs to be said. I sympathize in advance for all the flack you're about to get from the jingoists. 

  3. Jeff Sawyer from GH, May 18, 2015 at 11:22 a.m.

    The Bush/Cheney response to 9/11 was to launch an oops! war that could only encourage another 9/11. 

  4. Dean Fox from ScreenTwo LLC, May 18, 2015 at 11:54 a.m.

    Thanks for this, Bob.  Such a cynical, manipulative program any and all angles. I hope this story gets the attention it deserves. 

  5. David Mountain from Marketing and Advertising Direction, May 18, 2015 at 12:59 p.m.

    Golf clap, Bob. Golf clap.

  6. Michael Kaplan from Blue Sky Creative, May 18, 2015 at 1:05 p.m.

    Well said. And it's about time more of us started saying it. Wrapping yourself in the flag is no more a sign of REAL patriotism than wrapping yourself in the Bible proves you're truly a moral person.

  7. Jon Currie from Currie Communications, Inc., May 18, 2015 at 1:38 p.m.

    I am shocked that someone in the public eye has the cojones to say what I have been thinking for quite some time now. Being an American does not mean blindly worshipping the god of war, or kneeling at the foot of the military industrial complex. Thanks Bob. And in advance, I have your back when the flag-wavers start attacking you.

  8. Matthew Schultz from GSP, May 18, 2015 at 2:29 p.m.


    I am going to play Devil's Advocate — even though I m neither the Devil nor an Advocate, as far as I know.

    Should NFL players and teams be patriotic for free?


    Yet, it does not surprise me in the least — having dealt with professional athletes, pro sports teams, their lawyers, their sponsors, and their minions — that pro sports are hollow.  Seen that with my own eyes.

    The concept of selflessness in pro sports is not something the industry is hostile to — they simply don't get it. Selflessness is a language they neither understand nor speak — unless they're paid to speak it, and the words are monosyllablic, on a prompter, and there is time for a plenty of takes.

    So, one has amoral people sending a moral, patriotic, message — sounds like hiring talent to me.

    The real danger is not a paid spokesperson, in this case, NFL teams and/or players saying exactly what they are paid to say — that's advertising.  Nothing wrong with that.

    No, the real danger is the publc, the audience swallowing the whole thing hook, line and sinker.  

    Either via focus groups, or real research, the military has found out that these ads work.  

    That these ads work is the troubling part — since anyone who assigns much credibilty to a pro athlete in the era of Tom Brady and A-Rod — and going way back to folks such as Pete Rose — has lost the abilty to view the world critically, ain't goin' blind from readin' Chaucer, may be thick as a brick, etc.

    In this free country of ours, anyone is allowed to sell any baloney they want — I just wish we had a population that was capable of evaluating baloney before they consume it.

  9. Chuck Lantz from, network, May 18, 2015 at 7:31 p.m.

    Bob Garfield;  I missed this article the first time around, but - fortunately - found it in the NM Feedback Loop.  In my opinion it is easily one of the best, if not the best, article I have ever seen here. 

    After watching countless displays of the sporting event flag-waving mentioned in your article, and even though I am a hard-core cynic, I was surprised to hear about the payola. Until now, I thought it was all just a case of "monkey see, monkey do" amongst sports programming producers, driven by the fear of appearing less jingoistic than rival programs.  We can only hope that this exposure of the paid-for patriotism will cool things off a bit.  Fat chance, but one can hope.

    If nothing else, maybe those in charge will finally learn that calling everyone a "hero" not only embarrasses the recipient of that praise, but it also dilutes the true meaning of that word. All of which reminds me of my favorite t-shirt saying; "Hyperbole is the greatest thing, ever!"

    Maybe your gutsy article will finally give me the courage not to stand with hat in hand every time "God Bless America" is played at ball games.

  10. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, May 18, 2015 at 7:49 p.m.

    I find it hard to believe that MediaPost people didn't know that the federal government has an advertising budget. That money can be spent ..... anywhere. The NFL are some of the biggest goniffs, thieves and cheats in all sports (Olympics are probably worse.)

  11. Chuck Lantz from, network, May 18, 2015 at 8:40 p.m.

    Paula:  Their ad budget is not the surprise. The Army and National Guard has sponsored racing teams in NASCAR, Indy Car and the NHRA for years, and we've all seen the deluge of military branch ads on TV sports programs.  The surprise, at least for me, is learning that what I previously thought were in-house military tributes at such events were planned, bought and paid for by the Pentagon. Big, big difference.  It's like developing, producing and paying for an awards show, on the quiet, and then giving yourself the award.

  12. Jim Thompson from Temple University, May 19, 2015 at 10:59 a.m.

    Thank you!

  13. Sam Smith from RKG, May 19, 2015 at 3:13 p.m.

    This is why I tell people that you're the best business commentator I have ever seen. Thanks, Bob.

  14. Cody H from Some big ad agency, May 19, 2015 at 4:31 p.m.

    From the comments we can see that there is pretty much universal disgust towards the practice of phony, paid for patriotism (along with most of the NFL's policies). So what can we do about it? Awareness is nice, but the NFL is so cozied up to lawmakers that they don't have any incentive to make any significant changes.

    The NFL gave up their non-profit status so they don't have to disclose how much they're paying their employees, and I'm sure for other reasons that border on money laundering. What I'm curious about is what we as advertisers, marketers, and other media professionals can do to expose them for what they are?

  15. cara marcano from reporte hispano, May 19, 2015 at 6:03 p.m.

    People do not want to see the military industrial complex when they watch football. It is supposed to be fun, not militaristic.
    That folks don't really get this says a lot about how un-modern, anti-international and frankly anti-woman the NFL remains. We want to watch the game and have fun, not celebrate the military industrial complex on our tax dollars.
    There are so many better ways to build thes brands and support our vets and brands and the NFL and frankly the US military should know better. Wasted money and wasted opportunity to really get out there and market all these brands (the NFL, the US military, our veterans and troops, etc) well. 

    Watch any of these sports with anyone not born in the US and you will get a very 360-feel for how weird it is that the Super Bowl starts off with a paid tribute to war mongering.  A lot of us think this and this is why you need more Latinos and more non-US born folks in US business and more women frankly. 

  16. Chuck Lantz from, network, May 19, 2015 at 7:12 p.m.

    Cara: Well said. Unfortunately most of us who are reading all this are outside the target demographic of the military recruiters who are most likely behind most of the super-patriotic rah-rah we see on those broadcasts. We can only hope that this new public scrutiny will cool them off just a bit. 

  17. cara marcano from reporte hispano, May 19, 2015 at 7:14 p.m.

    Thanks Chuck !  XO ; ) Cara 

  18. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, May 19, 2015 at 10:26 p.m.

    I don't get why you are surprised, Chuck, that the NFL isn't generous as you thought it was. Nothing is free. The only thing that will pull the reins in of the NFL are strict legal regulations and you will be 18 years old again before that happens. I would just like the IRS to force them to open their books. Fat chance of that.

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