NFL's tangled ties with national anthem don't run deep

The National Football League's new policy requiring all team and league personnel to "stand and show respect for the flag" during the traditional pre-game playing of the national anthem is being painted by its backers as a show of patriotism. But the league's history with the national anthem illustrates another cherished American value: capitalism.

As ESPN's Stephen A. Smith and others have pointed out, NFL players have only been on the field for the anthem on a regular basis since 2009. At the time, sports leagues were paid millions of dollars by the U.S. Department of Defense to honor members of the military during the playing of "The Star-Spangled banner" without informing the public that they were watching a paid promotion.

A report released in 2015 by Arizona Republican Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake found that the Pentagon spent $6.8 million on sports marketing contracts with the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League and Major League Soccer on what the senators dubbed "paid patriotism."  The practice was subsequently banned by the Pentagon.

"Since the Army National Guard marketing policy with sporting event packages was clarified and corrected, please understand [that] National Guard soldiers on the field before, durin, or after sporting events are completely separate from the marketing initiatives," Kurt M. Rauschenberg, a spokesman for the National Guard Bureau, wrote in an email to CBS MoneyWatch. "Generally, these are considered community relations programs involving the team reaching out to the local National Guard asking for them to conduct honor guard, flag unfurling, or fly-overs. Those are of no extra cost to the government and very normal."

The national anthem protests began in 2016 after San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" to protest racism and police brutality. Soon, other players followed Kaepernick's lead, creating a public relations headache for the NFL, which is by far the most popular and profitable U.S. professional sports league. Conservatives including President Donald Trump said they were outraged by the protests.

The drama over the national anthem is far from over. A co-owner of the New York Jets has promised to cover any fines of players violating the league's policy

Meanwhile, Kaepernick remains unemployed. Earlier this year, he filed a grievance against the league, accusing owners of colluding against him to prevent him from being signed to another team.  The NFL has denied any wrongdoing. Critics of the NFL player protests have argued they were responsible for a decline in NFL ratings this season though the league has a host of problems that are also depressing viewership.

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    Jonathan Berr is an award-winning journalist and podcaster based in New Jersey whose main focus is on business and economic issues.