Color guard displays, enlistment ceremonies, military appreciation nights: These were among the many displays of “paid patriotism” that NFL teams once regularly carried out as part of lucrative contracts with the U.S. Defense Department. But what about standing during the national anthem?
Questions swirled about whether those contracts had anything to say about requiring players to stand during the pre-game ceremonies after President Donald Trump forcibly inserted himself into an ongoing debate about players protesting racial inequality and police brutality by kneeling during the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Given what’s known about the DOD and the NFL’s once-cozy patronage relationship, the widespread social media speculation is understandable; both entities say standing during the anthem is voluntary, however, and there’s no evidence of any contract requiring players to do so.
The controversy dates back to early 2015, when Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) drew attention to the tens of thousands of dollars that the New Jersey Army National Guard paid the New York Jets for military-related “advertising and promotion,” calling it an “egregious and unnecessary waste of taxpayer dollars.” Flake followed up with a report co-authored with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) that excoriated both the NFL and the military for allowing members of the armed services to be used as a “marketing ploy.” It ran through specific team’s contracts in detail, finding 14 teams received $5.4 million in taxpayer money from 2011-2014 for the so-called “patriotic displays.”
The report ricocheted through the media, and fans questioned what exact role the national anthem played in these lucrative deals after then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started kneeling during the anthem in the summer of 2016 to protest police brutality.
At the time, Comcast Sportsnet New England’s Tom E. Curran published a story that observed “prior to 2009, players being on the field for the national anthem wasn’t even standard practice.” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told Curran that though this practice did date back to 2009, players were never told how they had to position their bodies during the song.
“As you know, the NFL has a long tradition of patriotism,” McCarthy told him. “Players are encouraged but not required to stand for the anthem.”
McCarthy appeared to provide a bit more detail after Trump forced the issue back into the headlines at a September campaign rally, where he said that any “son of a bitch” who refuses to stand during the anthem should be fired. As Snopes reported, he explained that an adjustment in network timing issues allowed players to come out onto the sidelines for the anthem during primetime games, whereas they had previously waited in locker rooms. Being on the field for the anthem was already standard practice for daytime games, according to that report.
But despite internet rumors suggesting a connection, it seems unlikely the U.S. military had anything to do with these shifting practices. The McCain-Flake report looked at contracts dating back to 2011, not 2009, and made no specific reference to the military requesting that players stand during the anthem.
Anthem-related requests that pop up in the contracts typically involved having state national guard members perform it, or having soldiers come onto the field or participate in a color guard ceremony during the performance. None mention player behavior.
The DOD recently denied requesting that athletes from any professional sports league take part in the anthem.
“DoD does not require or request that athletes be on the field during the playing of the national anthem when military members are part of the patriotic opener,” Pentagon spokesman Army Major Dave Eastburn told CNN in a statement.
“Community relations participation, such as flyovers, color guards, and military band support, are unpaid activities,” Eastburn added. “DoD does not pay outside parties to host such community outreach activities.”
Some of the most egregious taxpayer funded displays of patriotism at NFL games have come to an end: The league returned over $700,000 of money paid to teams for military tributes last year, and Pentagon higher-ups have issued guidance banning sports marketing contracts for some of these “paid patriotism” activities, including national anthem performances.
Still, the financial ties between the two bodies run deep, with the league describing supporting the military as “part of the fabric of the NFL” in a description of its “Salute to Service” partnership, which funnels proceeds to non-profit partners like the Wounded Warrior Project. On the NFL’s online store, fans can purchase “Salute to Service” gear like a $99.99 camouflage-toned pullover, emblazoned with the logo of their favorite team.