WASHINGTON - The NFL will return $723,734 it was paid by the Defense Department to honor the military at games, Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a letter to Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake.
McCain and Flake, who released the letter Thursday, issued a scathing report in November that criticized the NFL and other pro sports leagues for taking money to put on events at games honoring the troops, a practice they called "paid patriotism."
The events included full-field displays of the American flag, enlistment and re-enlistment ceremonies and emotional reunion events in which a service member returned to the surprise of family members.
Flake, who regularly highlights wasteful spending, was pleased with the NFL's response.
"In all the years I’ve spent rooting out egregious federal spending, the NFL is the first organization to perform due diligence, take responsibility and return funds to the taxpayers," Flake said. "The NFL’s response to this investigation sets a new standard and only strengthens its reputation as a supporter of military service members and veterans.”
In his letter, Goodell said the league hired the auditing firm Deloitte & Touche LLP to review 100 agreements involving NFL teams covering four seasons, 2012-15.
Auditors attempted to determine what portion of the contracts went toward legitimate recruiting promotion and how much was for activities honoring the troops. Goodell said the auditors erred on the side of counting the payments as going toward honoring the troops.
The senators' report found $6.8 million worth of those contracts contained elements of paid patriotism. Of those paid-patriotism contracts, $6.1 million were paid to the NFL. The rest went to teams in the National Hockey League, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and Major League Soccer.
The Green Bay Packers received $400,000 in 2011, $150,000 in 2012 and $50,000 in 2014 from the National Guard. A National Guard spokesman said in 2015 that the organization entered into a marketing campaign with the Packers to aid in recruitment, retention and awareness about Guard activities.
The Packers did not have a contract with the Guard in 2015. The team said it holds a number of activities involving the military that are not sponsored, including re-enlistment ceremonies, change of command ceremonies and National Guard unit send-offs. Some events are private, Public events that are sponsored include sponsors' names and logos on programs, signs, handouts, video boards and in announcements over the public address system.
A Packers spokesman said the team was notified of the decision Thursday but did not have details regarding individual teams.
Goodell's letter does not break out which contracts included funds that are being returned.
"In order to ensure that military appreciation activities remain separate from military recruitment efforts in the future, the NFL will include an assessment of marketing contracts in our regular internal audit reviews," he wrote.
Even the money spent by the Pentagon with the NFL and other sports franchises to help with recruiting has been questioned by some. And the military has no hard evidence they are effective.
Among the biggest beneficiaries identified in the McCain-Flake report were the Atlanta Falcons, which received $879,000; the New England Patriots, $700,000; and the Buffalo Bills, $650,000.
McCain praised the NFL's response. He challenged the other sports to do similar audits and return the money or donate it to veterans and their families.
Richard Ryman, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin, contributed.