While the Rams were identified as only receiving funds from the National Guard once to the tune of $60,000, many other NFL teams received much, much more. The total since 2011 tops $5 million.
The story is a bit of an uncomfortable one for a couple of reasons.
For one, the NFL wraps itself in the shroud of public faux patriotism. There are seemingly more 1,000-foot flags and service members in an NFL broadcast than in any other save for the programming on the Pentagon Channel (which doesn't exist anymore...). That these 14 teams wouldn't provide those kinds of public support without needing to be paid doesn't exactly match up with the sentiment of that patriotic expression, faux or not.
Secondly, the military, and in this case more specifically the National Guard, have expenditures set aside for marketing. That these funds were used either during NFL games or NFL events doesn't diminish their value. If anything, the sheer popularity of the NFL justifies the attempt to get any awareness of the military you can get in that sphere.
Thirdly, there is a bit of the sponsored vs. native content debate here. There's a general feeling that being fed information that's being paid for isn't necessarily deceptive, as long as it's identified as such. To that end, the idea that these NFL franchises were supporting the military in these instances out of the goodness of spirit isn't quite accurate.
But lastly, and most importantly, it exemplifies the clear divide between the American civilian population and the military population that serves it. Americans as a whole do not understand their military or its culture. As Matt Ufford wrote in his reaction piece at SBN:
If there's a silver lining here, it's that the shadow-sponsored salute-the-troops moments call into question all the other times that the troops are positioned on the field to the benefit of the NFL and the military. How much money did that flyover cost us, and to what purpose? How are the soldiers holding the massive 100-yard flag being compensated? And can we do better than a round of applause for someone in uniform?
No work I've seen does more justice to the civilian-military divide than' James Fallows' extraordinary piece that not only explored the divide but the entertainment products that serve to show, and yes sometimes explain, the military as it is. That vein aside, I think this passage is most relevant to this NFL story:
...yet however much Americans "support" and "respect" their troops, they are not involved with them, and that disengagement inevitably leads to dangerous decisions the public barely notices. "My concern is this growing disconnect between the American people and our military," retired Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under George W. Bush and Barack Obama (and whose mid-career academic stint was at Harvard Business School), told me recently. The military is "professional and capable," he said, "but I would sacrifice some of that excellence and readiness to make sure that we stay close to the American people. Fewer and fewer people know anyone in the military. It’s become just too easy to go to war."
Americans "support" their military in large numbers, but often that support begins and ends with a semi-public show of gratitude and or respect. Perhaps no institution enjoys that distancing better than the NFL. But that they get paid to do so is difficult to accept without question, but it is the set of questions that we've avoided for more than a generation.
The NFL accepting fairly-marked funds for marketing the military to unaware sports fans won't help point us to the answers.