Pentagon officials paid at least $6.8 million over the last three years to professional sports teams for "paid patriotism" events like on-field color guards and "free" seats for troops, according to a final report from congressional investigators.

Republican Arizona Republican Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain hinted that number could be even higher, accusing the Defense Department of withholding details of many of its contracts with sports franchises in an effort to minimize the embarrassment over the arrangements.

"These teams do a lot of good work for the military," Flake told reporters on Wednesday. "What is upsetting is that when you see activities like this — activities that people assume are done out of the goodness of their hearts — and find out they're really paid for by the taxpayers, it cheapens the whole lot."

McCain and Flake have been looking into the issue since the spring, when reports first surfaced that seemingly benevolent displays supporting the military at New York Jets games may have been paid for by military marketing dollars.

Among the events included in the final report:

  • $88,500 to pay for military-themed rally towels and hats at a Baltimore Ravens game;
  • $49,000 to sponsor the singing of "God Bless America" at Sunday Milwaukee Brewers games;
  • $5,000 for two on-court enlistment ceremonies and to pay team staff to "throw out" Air Force T-shirts at a Dallas Mavericks game;
  • $1,509 to provide pregame recognition of "five high ranking Air Force officers" at a Los Angeles Galaxy game;

In total, the findings include 50 professional sports teams and questionable expenses in about two-thirds of the $10 million-plus total the military spent on professional sports marketing efforts since the start of fiscal 2012.

But McCain and Flake said in many cases owners and management were not aware of the arrangements.

Instead, they blasted defense officials for wasting money on the events and confusing the public on which events were paid advertisements and which were sincere appreciation of military efforts.

However, McCain added that "it would be entirely appropriate for these sports teams that were awarded taxpayer money to donate that to a worthy cause, causes like wounded warriors or others specific to the men and women serving our nation."

McCain said he did not expect to hold any oversight hearings on the issue. The Defense Department has already promised to end the practice, and the National Football League has promised a full review of its policies and participation in the marketing programs.

The annual defense authorization act winding through Congress now also includes a provision barring Pentagon officials from paying for such activities at sporting events.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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