By Aaron Leibowitz
(This piece was originally published at The Cauldron: https://medium.com/the-cauldron/the-nfl-is-one-giant-military-recruitment-tool-ae28276185e4)
Sometimes, even when you know in your heart that something is true, it feels good to get some validation — to see damning, indisputable proof.
When I woke up last Friday morning, I already knew that the National Football League uses jingoism to promote its brand. I knew that the league profits off the glorification of violence. I knew that the NFL and the military work hand in glove.
I did not know, however, that the National Guard has paid NFL teams millions of dollars to honor veterans on stadium Jumbotrons.
A report by Christopher Baxter and Jonathan D. Salant of NJ.com found that the New York Jets’ in-game “Hometown Hero” segments are actually paid advertisements, even though the team presents them as pure-hearted attempts to honor those who have served.
That finding led Baxter and Salant to dig deeper and learn that the Defense Department has paid 14 NFL teams $5.4 million since 2011, the large majority of which has come from the National Guard.
It’s one thing for an NFL team to have a military sponsor. It’s another for a team to help the military engage in undercover recruitment.
National Guard spokesperson Patrick Daugherty told NJ.com, point blank, that recruitment is the Guard’s goal: “Promoting and increasing the public’s understanding and appreciation of military service in the New Jersey Army National Guard increases the propensity for service in our ranks and garners public support for our Hometown Team.”
The Jets’ spokesperson, Bruce Speight, did not address the fact that the Jumbotron salutes are not publicly presented as sponsored content, but he did echo Daugherty’s point: The Jets (as well as at least a handful of other teams) are happy to take military money to aid recruitment efforts — even, apparently, if they need to be dishonest to do so.
“As with all of our sponsors,” Speight said, “we have worked with the National Guard to create tailored advertising and marketing programs to meet their specific objectives, which in this case was recruitment and retention by targeting our fans and audience through media and stadium assets controlled by the team.”
NFL teams taking advertising money from the military is fine, if you’re into that sort of thing. Private entities are allowed to choose their sponsors. But for the love of Goodell, can you at least give me a heads up when I’m about to be recruited?
I should probably note that those “Hometown Heroes” salutes have always felt weird to me, even before I knew that some are fraudulent. When I’m at a game and 50,000 fans are standing and cheering for a veteran, I almost feel compelled to turn to the person next to me and say: “Please know I’m clapping because I respect this veteran’s courage, not because I endorse any policies or actions by the U.S. military.”
But now, those moments have gone from kind of contrived and groupthink-ish to downright disgusting. Fans’ tax dollars go to the military, and the military gives some of those dollars to the NFL (which was tax-exempt until recently) to make those same fans think the NFL cares about the military. In other words, we are paying the NFL to pretend to give a crap, and then we’re expected to applaud them for it. To take it one step further, we’re expected to applaud a salute we paid for inside a stadium that we, the taxpayers, likely helped pay for.
The biggest takeaway, in my mind, is that the NFL is essentially one big military recruitment tool, with all proceeds going to the NFL. I already kind of knew that. But now I know it. When I turn on a game, I have every right to assume everything I see is disingenuous; every flyover, every salute to the troops is no more than a ploy to get young football-lovers like me to do America’s bidding.
I can’t help but think about Pat Tillman, who left a career in the NFL to join the U.S. army in 2002 and died in 2004 from “friendly fire” in Afghanistan. Tillman, from the moment he enlisted until well after his death, was used by the government and the NFL to push a narrative of American heroism and “the ultimate sacrifice.”
After Tillman’s death, president George W. Bush delivered a message to Arizona Cardinals fans on the Sun Devil Stadium Jumbotron:
“Pat Tillman loved the game of football. Yet, as much as Pat Tillman loved competing on the football field, he loved America even more. … Courageous and humble, a loving husband and son, a devoted brother and a fierce defender of liberty.”
Because we all know there’s just one thing more important than football — America — and if you love America, you drop everything and fight on its behalf.
What President Bush forgot to mention is that Tillman had actually come to oppose the very war he was fighting. Bush also left out the part where the U.S. government misled Tillman’s family regarding the circumstances of his death, the details of which remain murky to this day.
But the narrative of Pat Tillman, American Warrior, was profitable for the NFL. It also was profitable for the military, so it was the narrative we heard.
Ultimately, it’s about transparency. If the military wants to pay the NFL to assist in recruitment efforts — which makes perfect sense, considering the NFL and the military share common values and appeal to similar demographics—at least be honest about it. That way, I can do what I wish with the information.
That said, the only reason the NFL is so tight-lipped about the truth is that its truth often is ugly as sin. The league has tried to hide the reality of what football does to the brain, and while people will argue that players “know what they’re getting into,” that’s not really true. Only in recent years have we begun to understand what football players are risking, and for that we have scientists, lawyers and outspoken NFL retirees to thank.
Meanwhile, the league has swept numerous cases of domestic violence under the rug, another issue that’s only come fully to light because of the work of journalists, activists, and videotape.
Now, as we learn that the NFL has been feeding us military propaganda disguised as reverence, we shouldn’t be surprised, but it should come as a reminder to keep our guard up whenever the NFL is involved.
Watching the NFL is a personal choice. I haven’t been able to quit it yet. But more and more, I know precisely what I’m supporting when I watch.