Monday, 23 July 2018

Your Taxpayer Dollars At Work

If you're a US citizen who pays taxes, your tax dollars go towards helping to fund the world's largest military service. Taxes also go to many other places, of course, but US taxes are directed, in part, to funding the military, its staff, and its operations. This isn't Economics 101, so you probably already knew that, but how would it make you feel to know that your tax dollars are going to professional sports franchises in the form of celebrations and honours for the various branches of the military that you already support? Yes, even though you've already poured in a ton of money to build that shiny new arena or stadium, your tax dollars are being given to franchises already owned by billionaires in honour of the military!

According to a 2015 report from US Republican Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake entitled Tackling Paid Patriotism, there were a whole bunch of professional sports leagues and teams that benefited from some Department of Defence spending on getting the military a little more of the spotlight. The report goes over each of the "Big Four" sports and how much each team benefited from a Department of Defence contract. Hockey, as it stands, was not immune as six of the 24 NHL teams based in the United States got a little richer thanks to their military demonstrations from 2012-15.

Before we look at which teams were contracted by the Department of Defence to celebrate the military and all of its accomplishments, let me say that I have zero stake in this as a political speech. I'm not American, and I certainly don't identify myself as Democrat or Republican. It should be noted, however, that I'm writing this as a simple exercise in information - that American taxpayers should know that they're funding the military to pay professional sports franchises millions of dollars to trot out the flag and wear camouflage. This is the importance of democracy in that you should get a say where your money is being spent, and that say comes in the form of a vote. Aside from that, this article is merely an examination on how much money was spent by the Department of Defence to celebrate their military efforts in professional sports venues.

According to the report linked above, the Boston Bruins received payments from the Massachusetts Army National Guard in 2012 and 2013 totalling $280,000 for doing their patriotic duty by celebrating the military. What does $280,000 buy from the Boston Bruins? According to the report found on page 61, among the numerous items that were bought included "[r]ecognition of two MAARNG soldiers and their guests during each home game in November" for both years, "[a]ccess to one luxury box for 18 people and one executive suite for 25 people on military appreciation night" in 2013, "[f]our loge tickets to 10 regular season home games" in 2013, "[f]orty tickets for soldiers recognized during military appreciation month" in both years, and "[f]orty general tickets to Bruins home games" in both years.

If you ask me, that sounds a lot like the Bruins charging the Department of Defence for tickets for members of the military who are being honoured by the Bruins. In 2015, there was a Reddit thread that spoke of Jacobs accepting money for the Department of Defence celebrations, but it seems like the people commenting on that forum aren't bothered by the money being spent to buy tickets at the Bruins games. Rather, the one serviceman who does comment is bothered more by the lack of genuine support than he is the spending of taxpayers' money. To me, I'm not sure that this should be mutually exclusive.

The other teams included in Senators McCain's and Flake's report include the Carolina Hurricanes ($75,000 over three years), the Florida Panthers ($40,000 over two years), the Minnesota Wild ($570,000 over three years), the Detroit Red Wings ($41,500 over two years), and the Dallas Stars ($34,000 over two years).

The one that obviously stands out of these numbers is the amount paid to the Minnesota Wild as the Wild franchise pocketed over half a million dollars for virtually nothing in return.
I'm going to go out on a limb and say that those military personnel that were honoured also got tickets to the game so perhaps those costs were rolled into one charge, but $235,000 for the same thing that the Bruins did for $150,000 shows that these contracts are negotiated independently with the individual teams as opposed to the Department of Defence having a blanket contract with terms it would like.

Further to the point above, if the Wild offer so little for $235,000 while the Panthers offer seemingly everything and the kitchen sink for the $20,000 they were paid, it seems like some teams do genuinely want to hold these appreciation ceremonies while covering costs for tickets and staffing while others are simply there to pad the owner's wallet. I get that business is business, but that's not the intention of these evenings where fans are asked to honour the men and women serving in the military on behalf of the team.

In total, the Department of Defence spent $1,040,500 with six US NHL teams to get varying degrees of military appreciation support. While the current US administration has proposed a budget of $681.1 billion in Department of Defence spending, $1 million spent on getting the servicemen and women a little recognition seems like a drop of water in the ocean. That is, however, still a good chunk of taxes that the government has to raise to do a little advertising that probably should be used elsewhere.

Bill Astore, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who writes about the increased militarization of sports, told Howard Bryant of WBUR 90.9 in Boston, "I think our military has made a conscious decision, and that decision was, as much as possible, to work with strong forces within our society. I think our military made a choice to work with the sporting world — and vice versa. I think that's something that's in response to 9/11."

Was he surprised by how much money was being spent by the Department of Defence on military appreciation ceremonies?

"I hate to say it, but I wasn't completely surprised," Astore told Bryant. "But I was disgusted by it. Patriotic displays, they mean a lot more to me when they're spontaneous. But to learn that these had been paid for — that corporate teams, teams owned by billionaires, basically, were collecting money from the military. Paid for, obviously, by you and me, by the American taxpayer. Well, it was sad."

Maybe the serviceman on Reddit was right: the fact that these ceremonies aren't done genuinely as opposed to them being manufactured like a live-action advertisement may actually be worse than the payments for these ceremonies themselves. If there's one thing that I've learned in being the most civilian of civilians, it's that servicepeople take serving their nation very seriously. This was best identified in Rob Reiner's A Few Good Men where the two marines charged with the crime of murder explain to Lt. Caffey about "the code".
If there's one thing you don't do, you do not ignore the code. That's the entire foundation of what these Marines, and the servicepeople in the military today, believe in and entrust when it comes to their existence.

Nick Francona, son of MLB manager Terry Francona, is a retired serviceman, and his work with Major League Baseball has left a sour taste in his mouth when it comes to how these professional sports leagues and teams honour the military service personnel. Howard Bryant writes,
"... if you look at kind of the tone of what Memorial Day has become about, it's pretty gross," Nick says. "Even on the teams' official Twitter accounts — a flame emoji for, like, 'Look how hot these camo hats are.' And it's, like, 'Really, guys? That's the plan?' I mean, you can imagine how some of these Gold Star families reacted to that. They were not remotely amused.

"I might have asked the question 100 times and said, 'OK, if you're selling a $40 hat, how much of this is going to charity, and where is it going?' I think it's fair to say, if you're an average fan watching Major League Baseball, you're going to be, like, 'Man, these guys are really supportive of the military.'"
And that's the rub. It looks like professional sports leagues and teams ARE supportive of the military when they're actually just conducting business by selling the Department of Defence tickets, luxury suites, and private boxes. And I can't fault the professional sports teams for conducting business - they're businesses, after all - but I do fault them for not being genuine in their support of the military.

If there was a payment for tickets to a game for servicepeople and the team turned around and donated that payment to a charity for Veterans or military people, I'd say that's pretty genuine. But when you see the Minnesota Wild pocketing $570,000 over three years, this is nothing more than "paid patriotism" as the McCain/Flake report pointed out.
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 … [I]t is hard to understand how a team accepting taxpayer funds to sponsor a military appreciation game, or to recognize wounded warriors or returning troops, can be construed as anything other than paid patriotism.
Let me be clear here: I am not saying that professional sports leagues or teams should stop honouring the men and women of the military who risk their lives for the freedoms that we enjoy. What I am saying is that the teams need to be more genuine in taking that large bag of money that the Department of Defence gives them and giving it back to the very men and women they are honouring in their ceremonies through charities that help servicepeople and Veterans. Otherwise, these teams should stop accepting the money - YOUR taxpayer money - and profiting off of it. If you're against giving taxpayer money to billionaires to build rinks and stadiums, you should also be against this suckling off the taxpayers' teat.

Ceremonies honouring our countries' bravest men and women shouldn't be financial windfall for pro sports.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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