Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
If you’ve spent any time at major sporting events, you’ve probably noticed the tributes to the military and the outpouring of patriotism that have become commonplace at stadiums and arenas across the country. Members of the military performing renditions of “God Bless America” and the national anthem, recognizing soldiers, swearing in military personnel on the field and presenting color guards are all par for the course.
A 2015 report by Arizona Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake revealed that the Defense Department has been paying for much of this, which they dubbed “paid patriotism.” Between the 2012 fiscal year and the time of the report’s release, the DOD spent $6.8 million on marketing contracts with professional and college sports teams. The report was an excellent work of government oversight, but McCain and Flake — along with much of the media — walked away from it with a strange interpretation of what they uncovered.
Rather than criticizing the ongoing practice of propagandizing unsuspecting sports fans, they lamented that “by paying for such heartwarming displays like … on-field enlistment ceremonies, these displays lost their luster.” They weren’t angry that military propaganda was pervasive, only that it was monetized.
McCain and Flake rightly asserted that paid patriotism is an abuse of taxpayer money, but they based this in part on the fact that the marketing efforts had only questionable results in enhancing military recruitment. Moreover, they even faulted sports teams for charging the military for such displays instead of paying for the tributes themselves.
Many media outlets shared McCain’s and Flake’s perspective. John Oliver, for example, did a short segment in which he pilloried the NFL and MLB for accepting the payments. As with the initial report, he expressed anger at the fact that sports organizations’ profits taint “seemingly genuine emotional moments.”
This misses the point. Again, absent from the segment was any unease about the Pentagon surreptitiously using sports to recruit fans for the military.
With schmaltzy, patriotic displays still the norm at sporting events, the issue has not gone away. Last week, NBA coach Steve Kerr was on the right track when he said, “We’re just playing a sport here, and it feels sort of nationalistic, if that makes sense. So we are kind of wandering down a dicey path on this front.”
Paid or unpaid, military tributes are nationalistic. For what it’s worth, excessive, unpaid salutes to the military — the kind that McCain and Flake thought would be more appropriate — would display an even more disturbing level of subservience to the military than simple greed.
And beyond sports, there is a larger issue of the Pentagon using covert marketing techniques to embed a sense of militarism in American sports culture. As journalists Tom Secker and Matthew Alford reported last year, the DOD wields influence in Hollywood as well. Partly because of the need for military equipment to produce blockbuster action movies, producers sign off on deals with representatives from the Pentagon that give them enormous — and often uncredited — editing power. Secker and Alford found that the government had been involved in the process of making over 800 major movies and over 1,000 TV shows.
In Transformers, for example, a DOD Hollywood liaison added a line for Jon Voight’s character, the Secretary of Defense. When the military is attacked by robots, Voight’s character says “bring ‘em home,” which was designed to paint military leaders as protective and compassionate. Literally hundreds of other examples similarly serve to create in the mind of the public an image of the military as benevolent and effective defenders of America.
As the Defense Department is, of course, funded by American taxpayers, it is troubling to think that citizens are footing the bill for widespread efforts to covertly sway them in favor of the military. Even here at Maryland’s homecoming football game, pre-game festivities included fighter jets flying over the stadium.
Just as we should think critically and be cautious about what the military does abroad, it is important to do the same when considering how it is presented at home.
Zachary Jablow is a sophomore economics and government and politics major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.