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Founders of the United Veterans Coalition Baltimore Chapter, Vietnam Veteran Robert Valentine, left, and Ret SSGT Robert Freeman, right, holding an American flag outside of M&T Bank Stadium for a story announcing the protest of money paid to the Baltimore Ravens for promotional events for the Department of Defense. They and many other verterans will be outside of the stadium before the August 13th pre-season ravens game. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Md. veteran seeks to lead protest against Pentagon’s NFL spending

When Baltimore Ravens’ fans go to the team’s first preseason game Thursday, they might see a retired Air Force staff sergeant outside M&T Bank Stadium leading a protest.

Rob Freeman wants to bring attention to a Department of Defense program that paid NFL teams $5.4 million to honor veterans. That’s money Freeman said could be put to better use providing education, health programs and economic opportunities for veterans.

If NFL teams want to show their patriotism, Freeman said, they shouldn’t use taxpayer dollars to do so.

“Don’t give us the false patriotism when you’re putting money in your own pocket,” he said.

The program was first reported in May by The Star-Ledger of Newark, New Jersey, which said almost all of the $5.4 million spent from 2011 to 2014 was through National Guard contracts with 11 NFL teams. Typical of the programs, the Star-Ledger reported, was the $377,000 the New York Jets had received for home-game ceremonies that saluted veterans and flashed images of “Hometown Heroes” on the stadium’s scoreboard screen.

The Atlanta Falcons were the largest recipient of dollars through the program, with a little more than $1 million. Second to the Falcons were the Ravens, at $884,500.

Founders of the United Veterans Coalition Baltimore Chapter, Vietnam Veteran Robert Valentine, left,  and Ret SSGT Robert Freeman, right,  speak to homeless veteran Shawn Holmes about deferent programs that could help him, in War Memorial Plaza, Baltimore. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Founders of the United Veterans Coalition Baltimore Chapter, Vietnam Veteran Robert Valentine, left, and Ret SSGT Robert Freeman, right, speak to homeless veteran Shawn Holmes about deferent programs that could help him, in War Memorial Plaza, Baltimore. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

The Ravens told ESPN in May that the franchise was never paid to honor the military as part of those contracts. The Ravens declined to specify what the money specifically was for, citing the confidentiality of its contracts with sponsors.

‘We’re good stewards’

A spokesman for the Maryland National Guard on Wednesday said the money spent with the Ravens was solely for advertising purposes – never to provide tributes or honors.

“We didn’t do any of the payments for honors,” said Col. Charles Kohler. “That was a paid campaign” for radio spots, program advertisements and other sponsorships.

Kohler said the Guard does not pay for any of the various tributes to servicemen that are held at M&T Bank Stadium.

“The things the Ravens have done for us are honorable and above-board,” he said. “We appreciate our relationship with them.”

Kohler said the ad campaign was canceled last year because the Guard determined it wasn’t helping recruitment that much.

“We’re good stewards for the taxpayers’ dollars,” he said.

For Freeman, the money – regardless of whether it’s for advertising or for tributes – could be put to better use. Freeman said he is attempting to organize protests not only in Baltimore but in Atlanta, New Jersey, Boston and in other cities with NFL franchises. He said he has started a nonprofit organization, the United Veterans Coalition, Baltimore chapter, to raise awareness of a host of issues faced by veterans.

A 58-year-old Indiana native who now lives in Baltimore, Freeman said he is a patients’ advocate with the Veterans Administration. He said he’s been homeless and experienced post-traumatic stress syndrome so he knows firsthand the struggles some veterans endure.

 Senators’ concerns

Some members of Congress share Freeman’s concerns about the NFL deals.

Arizona’s two U.S. senators, Republicans Jeff Flake and John McCain and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, have inserted language in the massive defense authorization bill that would ban the Pentagon from paying for tributes to soldiers at NFL games.

McCain and others have raised questions about the overall thrust of the Pentagon advertising and recruiting campaign at all sports events, but they’ve been particularly pointed when it comes to the NFL, by far the most lucrative sports league in the U.S.

In a letter sent last month to Flake, the Defense Department said the money spent with the NFL is part of its overall recruiting and marketing campaign.

“To ensure continued recruiting success, the Services must employ an integrated marketing approach to meet immediate recruiting mission, maintain a dialogue with the American public and shape perceptions for future long-term recruiting success,” wrote acting-Under Secretary of Defense Brad Carson. “Sporting events are an important component of this process.”

The Pentagon said that it spent $89 million on sports marketing last year and $41.7 million in the current fiscal year but that it could not provide details on those programs.

Carson said all sports marketing programs are under a review that won’t be completed until March 2016, though his office has agreed to provide Flake with more details about the programs by the end of this month, the senator’s staff said Wednesday.

“The Department agrees that using valuable recruiting resources to pay outside entities to honor our brave Service men and women is a concerning practice that requires scrutiny,” Carson wrote.

Freeman said he’s happy elected officials are asking questions. But he also wants veterans to raise their voices, too.

“We have to make our own noise,” he said of the planned protest.

For the Ravens, any protests come even as their coach has been honored for his support of service personnel.

Since 2008, John Harbaugh’s first with the team, the Ravens have held a Military Appreciation Day in which thousands of active-duty servicemen and servicewomen are provided special seating at training camp practices. Harbaugh has visited numerous military bases in the U.S. and abroad and sent care packages to troops overseas. He was awarded the NFL’s Salute to Service Award in 2013.