Are Taxpayers Footing The Bill For Patriotic Tributes At College Games?

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Jianing He / WBEZ
DOD Thumbnail
Jianing He / WBEZ

Are Taxpayers Footing The Bill For Patriotic Tributes At College Games?

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This year’s National Football League season has been full of controversy over players taking a knee during the national anthem.

But in 2015, the league found itself in a different controversy, this time over how patriotism gets displayed at games. That’s when Arizona Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, both Republicans, released a joint oversight report that said the U.S. Department of Defense and National Guard paid sports teams millions of dollars to stage patriotic tributes to the military at games.

Between 2012 and 2015, various football, baseball, hockey, and basketball teams received $6.8 million in contracts from the DOD and the National Guard, and these contracts included, among other things, money for ceremonies like color guards, soldier recognitions, and flag presentations during games, according to the report.

These kinds of patriotic displays honoring the military have been a part of sports events for almost a century, but the senators said it was wrong to use taxpayer money to fund them.

“When events take place on the field that everyone assumes is done out of the goodness of [the team’s] heart, and you find out that it’s being paid for by the taxpayer, it kind of cheapens everything,” Flake said after the report came out. “And it’s just not right.”

Chicago-area veteran Nick (who asked to remain anonymous due to concerns he might jeopardize his veteran disability benefits) saw news stories about that 2015 oversight report, and he noticed that the stories were focused on professional teams. But he wondered if the practice went beyond the pros, so he wrote in to Curious City and asked:

Does the Department of Defense give money to colleges like Northwestern to stage patriotic activities like they do with pro sports?

Nick says he’s particularly interested in Northwestern University because he sometimes attends NU football games at Ryan Field, where he’s seen patriotic salutes taking place.

Like the senators, Nick says he’s concerned that the military is paying to stage these events when so many fellow veterans are waiting for care from the beleaguered Veterans Health Administration.

“As long as there are vets struggling to get disability benefits, as long as there are vets needing healthcare, whether mental or physical, as long as there are vets struggling with the transition to  civilian life, this bothers me,” he says. “It just bothers me that the money would be going to paid patriotism. I think the money needs to go to these other issues.”  

So is money going to “paid patriotism” at college games, too, as Nick suspects? It turns out that he’s onto something — or at least was.

Some colleges did, in fact, accept government money to stage patriotic displays at sporting events, according to the report.  But after the Flake and McCain investigation, Congress issued new rules prohibiting the practice. They took effect in 2016. So, in theory teams aren’t supposed to get paid to do this anymore. But it’s unclear whether these new rules are enforced or if they have made any difference when it comes to the thing Nick is bothered by: the marketing of the U.S. military.

Senators McCain and Flake's 2015 report on paid patriotism at sporting events included college teams. (Courtesy

Which college teams got paid for patriotic displays?

It’s hard to know exactly how many universities took money from the DOD or the National Guard.  McCain and Flake acknowledged that the contracts detailed in the Tackling Paid Patriotism report aren’t comprehensive. Despite repeated requests, representatives from the senators’ offices did not provide additional information to Curious City about whether they had uncovered any new information about additional contracts made with universities.

The universities that were listed in the oversight report included Northwestern’s Big Ten conference competitors: the University of Wisconsin, Purdue University, and Indiana University. All three universities received money for patriotic displays from their state National Guard. The report says in 2014, the University of Wisconsin received $140,000 from the National Guard, and Purdue and Indiana received $400,000 as part of contracts that included on-field and on-court ceremonies, as well as tickets and passes to help recruiters entertain teachers, coaches, and counselors who could influence future recruits.

But what about other Big Ten teams in Illinois, like the University of Illinois and Northwestern University, where our questioner Nick attends games? U of I officials said they have never taken money for on-field displays. But Northwestern University sent the following statement from Paul Kennedy, assistant athletic director for communications:

“While we’ve had the US Army as a partner since 2014, we’ve shifted away from them directly sponsoring anything that can be deemed as non-recruitment/branding, especially military or patriotic recognitions.”

This news that Northwestern had accepted direct sponsorship for these recognitions in the past surprised Nick.

“They’ve got a pretty good endowment over there,” he says. “So what is this about? Is this about the corporatization of universities nowadays? Like this is a business model and this is just another source of revenue we can collect on?”

Curious City made multiple attempts to ask Kennedy for more details on these contracts, but he stopped responding to questions.

How the rules changed

Congress added language to the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act that prohibited future DOD and National Guard contracts from including payments to a team for certain types of patriotic tributes. Both departments issued memoranda about the new rules with lists of what can and cannot be paid for at games. They were still allowed to pay for recruitment-based things like banners, ads, and sign-up booths, but any activities that appeared more like patriotic tributes, things like ceremonies or player appearances, could no longer be paid for by DOD or the National Guard.

Guidance on Army National Guard (ARNG) Sports Marketing Activities


  • Out-of-home advertising

  • Print materials

  • Social media/video/online advertising

  • Event/display space

  • Recruiting/retention promotional items

  • Game day recruiting events

  • Jumbotron/public address system announcements

Not Authorized:

  • Paid player appearances

  • Paid recognition of any ARNG member

  • Paid ceremonies, to include: National Anthem, color guard, and enlistment or extension

  • Tickets or passes of any kind (unless for set-up or worker access)

  • Parking passes (unless for set-up or worker access)

  • Meals or beverages of any kind

  • Anything else that could be construed as “Personal in Nature”

So, has anything really changed?

Officials at the Department of Defense did not answer any questions from Curious City about how their practices had changed in the wake of the new rules or how the new rules get enforced. The senators office also did not respond to requests for information about whether they had conducted any audits of the DOD since the new rules took effect.

National Guard representatives, on the other hand, say they have stopped issuing contracts that specifically pay for activities like the flyovers, flag unfurling, and on-field salute ceremonies that are now restricted. They say they are complying with the new rules.

But these new payment restrictions haven’t resulted in reduced spending by the National Guard at collegiate sporting events. In fact, between 2016 and 2017, National Guard Bureau spokesman Kurt Rauschenberg says spending on marketing at collegiate games went up by 36 percent, from $498,000 to $680,000.

Even if a rise in spending might be unexpected under the new policy, Rauschenberg says the policies didn’t restrict spending. “The funding amounts for sporting event marketing packages were not restricted as a result of the policy. Rather, the updated guidance served to clarify activities for which the funding could be used.”

And the National Guard has no plans to stop marketing at college sporting events. Rauschenberg says games are ideal marketing spots because they attract “a population of 17- to 24-year-old individuals who may have been attending sporting events because they have a strong physical fitness background, and that is something that the military looks for in potential recruits.”

Given this prime location for recruiting, and the lack of oversight over the new rules, Nick’s not likely to see any big changes at the games he attends. He just hopes that teams and officials are making a good faith effort to keep their payments separate from their patriotism.

Northwestern University recognizes a veteran at an October 2017 football game. (Courtesy Jianing He)

More about our questioner

Nick is a veteran of the Vietnam War who currently lives in the northern suburbs of Chicago. He likes to attend football games at Northwestern but is concerned about the use of such games to rally support for more U.S. wars.

“I have a hard time with this kind of marketing,” he says. “I think part of this is about selling war and making it sort of like, ‘Here, Johnny comes marching home, rah rah! Let’s do the flyover and parade the vet out in front of everybody and clap and applaud.’ I’m not sure who this really serves. Not the vet.”

Monica Eng is a reporter for Curious City. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at

Special thanks to Jianing He for audio and photo assistance.