NFL promises to return some Defense Department marketing funds

The NFL’s decision to return Pentagon marketing money came after a report last year that showed the Defense Department had spent $6.8 million on patriotic events at professional and collegiate games over four years. (Photo by Elizabeth Blackburn/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – Arizona’s senators welcomed the announcement this week by NFL officials that the league would return more than $723,000 of Defense Department recruitment funds that had been used to fund events at games honoring troops.

The money is only a fraction of the $6.8 million the Pentagon had spent on marketing at major sports events since 2012, according to a report released in November by Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake.

While the funding was intended for recruitment purposes, teams used much of the money on events such as ceremonial first pitches, color guards and troop tributes, according to a letter released Wednesday by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

The letter was addressed to Flake and McCain, who praised the league’s decision.

“In all the years I’ve spent trying to root out egregious federal spending, the NFL is the first organization to perform due diligence, take responsibility and return funds to the taxpayers,” Flake said in a statement released by his office.

“The NFL’s response to this investigation sets a new standard and only strengthens its reputation as a supporter of military service members and veterans,” his statement said.

Goodell said the NFL is returning the funds after an audit that showed $723,734 “may have been mistakenly applied to appreciation activities rather than recruitment efforts” over the last four seasons.

While the NFL has a long history of participating in military recruitment efforts as well as events honoring military, Goodell wrote that recruitment efforts are “intended to be separate and apart” from events honoring military members and their families.

A spokesman said Flake agreed that taxpayer money should not go toward “paid patriotism” events that people thought the leagues were putting on for free.

Returning the money was the “right thing to do,” McCain said in a prepared statement, but that other professional leagues named in the report should step up to the plates.

“Other organizations – Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, National Basketball Association and Major League Soccer – should also conduct an audit and return the money or donate it to service members, veterans and their families,” McCain’s statement said.

Calls to the offices of Major League Baseball, the NHL and NASCAR were not returned Friday. The NCAA, which was also named in the report, said questions would need to be addressed to individual colleges.

Calls to the Arizona Diamondbacks and Arizona Cardinals were not returned. The Arizona Coyotes said they have never had a relationship with the Pentagon, and declined to comment on other teams.

The Pentagon said in November, when the report came out, that it had discontinued the practice.

McCain said in his statement that he and Flake would continue to push for language in the Defense authorization bill to ensure that the Pentagon does not spend tax dollars on events to honor troops.