Pat Tillman Murdered?
Is Pat Tillman’s fate a sports story? As more disturbing details emerge of how he died, including the new revelation that he might have been deliberately murdered by his own men, does sports media have anything left to say about him? When Tillman first walked away from the Arizona Cardinals and a $3.6 million contract in 2002 to join the Army Rangers, it certainly was. Tillman’s decision was unprecedented in modern sports and, as a then well-known sports figure, his decision was naturally part of the sports news cycle.
But, it was also an easy story five years ago for a sports media obsessed with the spoiled, pampered, character-less contemporary athlete. Tillman’s selflessness, his commitment to something larger than himself, his obvious disregard for wealth were viewed as the perfect contrast to the typical athlete of today.
I have known and respected many people who have fought in uniform (including my late father, a veteran of World War II), but I have found dismaying and objectionable the fetish that has been made out of the United States military in recent years, especially in much of the sports world, where there is a hero-worship of our fighting men and women that is inappropriate in a democratic society. No sport is more guilty of this over-the-top celebration of all things military than football, of course, the result of a confluence of cultural and regional influences that results in endless military analogies to describe football and a bizarre blurring of the lines between actual combat, with all of its horrors, and what goes on in the “trenches” of a football game. The relationship is an old one, dating at least to the time that President Teddy Roosevelt argued that football was the ideal venue in which young American men could learn the martial spirit necessary to defend a fighting nation. Football is war. War makes men great and glorifies America. Football, and the men who play it, share in the manly, fighting spirit that is central to the greatness that is America.
All of this makes the Tillman story complicated. When the Arizona Cardinals’ safety walked away from a multi-million dollar contract to enlist in the armed forces to fight Al Qaeda, his example was quickly seized upon by the Bush administration and the NFL alike as an exemplary act of self-less patriotic duty and heroism. And, when he died a martyr in 2004, his legend was sealed. But, then the Tillman story went terribly wrong. First, it came to light that the military had covered up the true circumstances of Tillman’s death. It wasn’t enemy terrorists who were responsible for Tillman’s death in Afghanistan, but “friendly fire.” In 2006, ESPN.com’s Mike Fish wrote an outstanding four part story on the circumstances surrounding Tillman’s death, and Outside the Lines devoted a show to interviewing members of his unit about what happened that fateful day of April 22, 2004. Sports Illustrated’s Gary Smith wrote an incredibly moving account of Tillman, highlighting details of Tillman’s life and outlook that sit poorly with the rah-rah pro American militarism that is football’s, and mainstream sports’ version of what it means to be a patriotic American. Tillman, as is now well known, had grave doubts about the war in Iraq, and admired the radical critic of American foreign policy, Noam Chomsky. Furthermore, by the time this new information emerged, Tillman was more than four years removed from his final professional game. Was Tillman still of the world of sports?
Now comes word that that “friendly fire” may not have been friendly at all. That, in fact, Tillman might have been murdered by his own men. The details, reported by the AP, are chilling, though it’s too soon to know conclusively whether they’re true.
But, they are yet another reminder that war is hell and tha it can destroy people, both morally, and physically, that it’s not, in fact, a game, nor a fantasy, not something you play at. I am picking on the NFL because their association with military symbolism is the most overt, but uncritical militarism plagues all major team sports and much of the sports media. So, the next time there is a flyover of F-15s at a super bowl, or at a baseball game, can we at least stop and ask ourselves, what is the point exactly? Let’s leave aside the question of the military protecting our freedoms. Suffice it to say, the current war in Iraq, whatever the heroism of individual American soldiers there, is not making us safer and only the Alice in Wonderland quality of our politics the past few years has made it plausible even to assert that the best way to fight Al Qaeda in Afghanistan was by invading…another country. But, even if you accept the more general point, that it’s our military that allows us to be free, is there really a good reason to portray it in such two-dimensional, comic book terms as only good and right and pure and heroic? It was, in fact, the easy access to a two-dimensional comic book hero that made Tillman so appealing in the beginning, both to the Bush administration, and to the sports world. As his story became more complex, his own views more clearly in conflict with the obvious pro-war tilt of much of the sports-industrial complex, Tillman was removed from the front page of the proverbial sports section. And now that he may have been murdered by his own men, is he not a sports story at all? Is he too far removed from his playing days? Or is that there nothing for the sports world to learn from the lessons of the real Tillman and the reality of war, now that he’s not an easy symbol of a Rooseveltian ideal of the martial-athletic spirit?
For the average sports journalist out there, the realities of his story don’t make for quite as pithy a punchline as what Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post wrote, in 20o2, in a faux letter to Tillman:
To: Specialist Pat Tillman, 75th Ranger Regiment, Ranger Training Brigade, Fort Benning, Ga.
Dear Pat, They say that soldiers, between duress and boredom, look forward to mail call, so I thought I would write. While I don’t know you personally, I know of you: how you left your career as a strong safety for the Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the infantry, with the intention of becoming a Ranger.
Congratulations on your graduation from Airborne School this week.
I wonder if you have any regret, if learning to parachute from a plane, with 80 pounds of gear on your back, at night, under fire, makes you wish you were back in the NFL defending hitch routes?
Actually, I was tempted to start my letter this way, for laughs, seeing as how you might need some, what with all you’re going through:
Dear Pat, You think you’ve got it tough, crawling through mud and climbing up rope ladders? Tiger Woods has it tough, too. Every day there’s another story about how tough it is to be him — knowing, that any moment, someone else might ask him about Augusta. Always having to bite his nails, and wonder what lies ahead, around the next dogleg.
Or Dear Pat, Don’t be afraid. You think you have fears? Allen Iverson has fears, too. He’s afraid to live in Philadelphia.
Or Dear Pat, I know you’re tired and hurting. Shaq is, too. We all hope his big toe will be healed in time for the next Olympics.
As of this posting, ESPN.com still hasn’t posted anything about this latest turn in the Tillman story, nor has SI.com. Is Tillman, finally, not a sports story at all?