By Dan Whitcomb
(Reuters) - The National Football League has agreed to return more than $700,000 paid to its teams by the Pentagon for honoring American soldiers at sporting events in a so-called "paid patriotism" scheme, two U.S. senators said on Thursday.
Republican Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake said the NFL said in a letter that an external audit had identified $723,734 in payments "mistakenly applied to appreciation activities" over four seasons.
The league had committed to repay that amount to taxpayers in full, McCain and Flake said in a written statement.
"I applaud the NFL’s audit in response to our oversight investigation into ‘paid patriotism.’ Returning the $723,000 is the right thing to do,” said McCain, U.S. Naval Academy graduate who was tortured while being held prisoner during the Vietnam War.
According to a 2015 report by the two senators, the U.S. Department of Defense had paid out at least $6.8 million in "paid patriotism" contracts to teams in the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League and Major League Soccer.
Congress has since moved to include language in defense authorization bills that would prohibit that practice.
"The other organizations - Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, National Basketball Association and Major League Soccer - should also conduct an audit and return the money or donate it to service members, veterans and their families," McCain said.
According to the McCain-Flake report the New York Jets football team received $20,000 from the Pentagon as part of a contract paying to recognize one or two New Jersey Army National Guard soldiers as "hometown heroes" at home games.
The report found three contracts totaling $450,000 went to the Atlanta Braves baseball team to help pay for a "surprise homecoming" for soldiers, a parade and "patriotic-themed presentations."
The Milwaukee Brewers baseball team received $49,000 for activities including Sunday performances of the song "God Bless America."
Closer to the senators' home, the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team received $40,000 for events including an on-field "oath ceremony" for the Arizona Army National Guard and a color guard demonstration.
That contract also paid for a soldier to deliver a ceremonial "first pitch" to open a baseball game.
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by James Dalgleish)