Charlotte Hornets officials said Friday they were shocked to see themselves among a list of 50 sports teams that allegedly received $6.8 million from the Department of Defense so that members of the military could sing the national anthem, host salutes and participate in other forms of what two senators described as “paid patriotism.”
Charlotte’s National Basketball Association franchise received $25,000 from the Air Force, which the team said was for legitimate recruiting events and not fake patriotic tributes.
They included three “parachute drops” and an opportunity for an “on-court ceremony” at a Hornets home game, according to the report by Arizona Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake.
Charlotte Hornets spokesman Josh Rosen said the team has a long history of recognizing and supporting the military. The team donates 10,000 personal care kits to military personnel a year and honors veterans at all Saturday games. But he said the payments raised in the report were not about tributes but were for actual recruiting events.
“We are surprised to find our team included in this report,” Rosen said in a statement.
He said the parachute drop involved the team dropping small parachutes with vouchers for Air Force-branded items such as stress balls. The Air Force also had a recruiting table in the arena. The team added that it didn’t charge the Air Force for the on-court ceremony, which was a swearing-in of new recruits.
Christa D’Andrea, a spokeswoman for the Air Force, also said the contract with the Hornets was specifically for recruiting. She said Air Force recruiting squadrons are allocated a budget to purchase advertising in their local areas, and Hornets games provide an ideal venue for advertising to a diverse audiences at games and watching at home.
“This experiential marketing raises public awareness about America’s Air Force and helps inspire, engage and recruit future airmen,” she said.
The Carolina Panthers were not among the teams listed in the 145-page report, which raised questions about payments to 18 National Football League clubs, 10 Major League Baseball teams, eight NBA teams, NASCAR and others, according to the report by McCain and Flake.
“By paying for such heartwarming displays like recognition of wounded warriors, surprise homecomings, and on-field enlistment ceremonies, these displays lost their luster,” McCain and Flake wrote in their report. “Unsuspecting audience members became the subjects of paid-marketing campaigns rather than simply bearing witness to teams’ authentic, voluntary shows of support for the brave men and women who wear our nation’s uniform.”
We are surprised to find our team included in this report. Josh Rosen, Charlotte Hornets
The Pentagon defended the fan outreach program.
“Service engagement in sports marketing is intended to create awareness and goodwill, help to educate the public, build brand recognition, renew interest in public service and overcome negative perceptions of the military that may exist among (opinion) influencers and eligible youth,” a Pentagon official, who requested anonymity because he said he was not authorized to speak on the record, told McClatchy.
A Panthers spokesman didn’t respond immediately to a request for comment.
Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-N.C., said the Defense Department and some professional sports teams may have found mutual benefit in the patriotic displays funded by taxpayers, but that the perception conveyed to the public seems disingenuous.
“Professional sports teams should wisely not conflict themselves by seeking or accepting DOD agreements for patriotic displays which appear to be goodwill yet require taxpayer funding,” Pittenger said in a statement.
The NFL plans to audit its teams’ marketing contracts and has offered to return money that was improperly used for tributes, according to a letter from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
“If we find that inappropriate payments were made, they will be refunded in full,” Goodell wrote in a Nov. 2 letter to McCain and Flake.
The NFL got some of the biggest contracts. Eighteen of the 32 teams received $4.5 million to prominently feature members of the military at NFL team events.
The Carolina Panthers’ rivals, the Atlanta Falcons, received $879,000 over four years.
To illustrate their point, the senators dramatically described how a roaring crowd cheered as the Atlanta Falcons welcomed 80 National Guard members in 2013 as they unrolled a giant American flag across the field.
If we find that inappropriate payments were made, they will be refunded in full. Roger Goodell, NFL commissioner
“Little did those fans – or millions of other Americans – know that the National Guard had actually paid the Atlanta Falcons for this display of patriotism as part of a $315,000 marketing contract,” Flake and McCain wrote.
Rosen defended the Hornets’ work on behalf of American troops. The team also made a $200,000 donation to the Central Piedmont Community College Veterans Employment Fund, Rosen said.
James Rosen of the Washington Bureau contributed. Portillo of The Charlotte Observer reported from Charlotte, N.C. Ordonez reported from Washington.