WASHINGTON — Apparently, football is essential for the operation of the U.S. military.
Defense Department officials reversed course Sunday morning and announced they will partially restore operations at the American Forces Network, which was shuttered Saturday because of the government shutdown.
In a statement, Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said department officials “determined the operational necessity of television and radio broadcasts constitutes them as essential activities.” As a result, two of AFN’s eight channels will remain broadcasting for now.
The network’s programming relies entirely on civilian government employees, who were furloughed at midnight Saturday. However, defense officials said they can keep both the news and sports broadcasting channels operating with minimal manning and no additional cost, even during the lapse in appropriations.
The policy change means that troops abroad will be able to watch the NFL conference championship games this afternoon, featuring the Philadelphia Eagles playing for the NFC title and the Jacksonville Jaguars playing for the AFC title (two other teams are involved, too).
White said said the move is a signal that “we will continue to find solutions to support our troops at home and abroad. Congress must come to a resolution, support our troops and pass a budget soon.”
On Saturday night, government operations were partially shut down after congressional leaders failed to adopt a new budget resolution to continue funding federal programs. Democratic and Republican leaders spent most of Saturday accusing each other of undermining military missions and hurting federal employees by not conceding to a deal.
Negotiators are now eyeing a three-week extension of government funding to re-open operations. But Democrats are insistent on that deal addressing the issue of expiring aspects of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, while President Donald Trump and Republicans are saying they won’t discuss immigration issues until the budget impasse is solved.
White House officials have said they are working to minimize the effects of the current funding fight, in contrast to the executive branch response to the 2013 shutdown.
Hundreds of thousands of federal workers have been sent home as a result of the shutdown (most will get their official notice of furlough Monday morning) and non-essential programs are closing.
But, unlike 2013, officials from the Office of Management and Budget have instructed agencies to try and keep operations normal for as long as possible, transferring other available funds and looking at ways to minimize public access to services.
That includes keeping national parks open with minimal staffing. In 2013, then President Barack Obama ordered the parks shut down, which lead images to groups of veterans visiting war memorials in Washington being met with barriers and “no entry” signs.
Overseas troops lamenting missing widely-watched football games on social media may have provided some of the same emotional impact, had the issue not been addressed this morning.
Troops still face significant issues as a result of the shutdown. White House officials said service members will get paid next week, but won’t see their next paycheck in early February if the shutdown lingers. Death gratuities will not be paid to grieving families until the shutdown ends, unless Congress passes legislation to fix the issue.
Family support programs and a host of maintenance activities have already been shuttered. Guardsmen and reservists scheduled to attend training this weekend have been sent back home.
On Friday, Defense Secretary James Mattis said the shutdown will have a “terrible impact” on the military.
“We need a budget and we need budget predictability if we’re to sustain our military’s primacy,” he said.
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.