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The price of supporting the troops is paid to the NFL

The Department of Defense paid NFL teams more than $5 million over four years to buy moments that honored troops. It's disingenuous -- and also par for the course for the NFL's operations.

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The scene is familiar at any sporting event. The PA announces, "Ladies and gentlemen, please turn your attention to our Hometown Hero," and the JumboTron shows Petty Officer Binotz or Master Sergeant Jones, waving humbly, flanked by cheerleaders. The moment, though perhaps reductive and saccharine, is nonetheless touching: a fleeting opportunity to connect to whatever we feel toward the troops -- memories of friends lost, of family members' service, of the people we might have been.

In some NFL stadiums, that moment is a paid commercial. A report by NJ.com revealed that several such salutes were the product of marketing contracts bought with taxpayer money:

The Department of Defense and the Jersey Guard paid the Jets a total of $377,000 from 2011 to 2014 for the salutes and other advertising, according to federal contracts. Overall, the Defense Department has paid 14 NFL teams $5.4 million during that time, of which $5.3 million was paid by the National Guard to 11 teams under similar contracts.

Perhaps this shouldn't be a surprise: the NFL and the armed services have long benefited from a symbiotic relationship. With every show of patriotism -- color guards for the National Anthem, flyovers, post-deployment reunions -- the NFL sows goodwill with fans and affirms its brand as America's true pastime, while the military enjoys relatively cheap native advertising. Whether a "Hometown Heroes" ovation is bought by DoD or a patriotic gesture of the host team (or a pragmatic one -- the Jets often lack for reasons to applaud) is likely irrelevant to some.

An advertising military is a result of the All-Volunteer Force. Aside from waging war, recruiting young Americans to serve is perhaps the greatest challenge that each military branch faces, and the competition to feed new manpower into the machine is ruthless. Without conscription to fill the ranks, the Marines and Navy and Army and Air Force must compete to recruit from the shrinking pool of Americans who are actually fit to serve. The volunteer military allows many citizens to ignore the cost of war; the hundreds of millions dollars the military spends on advertising is part of the price.

The emotional hiccup happens when the ad is presented as content. If you're the type of person who feels something positive while Petty Officer Binotz waves on the JumboTron, you probably don't mind if that moment has a stated corporate sponsor. You might not even notice it.

It's the difference between bullshit and an outright lie.

But when that moment is quietly paid for by the military, it becomes disingenuous. Without transparency, the moment is false. (It was always staged, but the intent was honest enough.) In this case, the fans are unwittingly clapping for a commercial that they themselves funded. It's the difference between bullshit and an outright lie: we'll cry at the puppy selling us Budweiser, just don't try to convince us it's a one-minute documentary about canine-equine friendship. When the hero you're clapping for is just an ad, it may as well be an actor in that uniform.

If there's a silver lining here, it's that the shadow-sponsored salute-the-troops moments call into question all the other times that the troops are positioned on the field to the benefit of the NFL and the military. How much money did that flyover cost us, and to what purpose? How are the soldiers holding the massive 100-yard flag being compensated? And can we do better than a round of applause for someone in uniform? As Kristen L. Rouse, a writer and Army veteran, wrote to me in an email, "I think this could be a great way to discuss how important it is to get beyond 'thank you' to something more sincere and meaningful."

I hope that's the case, but I doubt that's a lasting result of this report. I doubt there's any lasting result. This is a pebble tossed into the NFL's dark well of venality, its depth obvious only in the silence that follows. The pebble is gone, then forgotten.

Another Army vet, Brian Van Reet, pointed out the cynicism of the Department of Defense paying NFL teams so people would cheer for veterans, calling it "more evidence that we do not have a national culture so much as a series of national marketing campaigns." His email concluded with the sentiment, "People can support me by giving me a briefcase full of cash. That's about the most sincere and meaningful gesture that is possible nowadays."

In that way, the military supports the NFL, not the other way around. The only thing the NFL ever supports is the NFL.