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,’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, still hasn’t posted anything about this latest turn in the Tillman story, nor has Is Tillman, finally, not a sports story at all?


35 Responses to “Pat Tillman Murdered?”

  1. I think the lack of objectivity regarding the military is a pendulum swing from the shame people felt about Vietnam. It’s important to remember that the people in the military are just people. They make mistakes and some of them are even in it for all the wrong reasons – many of them officers. Grain of salt at all times.

  2. The more info that comes out, the more I like Pat Tillman and the Tillman family.

    Those “new” last words…
    “The chaplain said that O’Neal told him he was hugging the ground at Tillman’s side, “crying out to God, help us. And Tillman says to him, ‘Would you shut your (expletive) mouth? God’s not going to help you; you need to do something for yourself, you sniveling …”

  3. I could believe that Tillman might have said something like that, but “you sniveling…” sounds so much like bad Hollywood dialogue that it immediately throws that account into doubt.

    I respect Tillman for being who he was. I also read the SI article (not the four-parter), and he sounded like a seeker who was trying to find out what was true, not a hardcore believer who refused to question anything, including himself.

    The sad fact is, it’s all going to be shades of gray. Probably no full-on heroes in this one.

  4. EP, I totally agree. I do get a sense that Tillman was a special being.

    This should be the story that every single outlet leaps on. I just don’t understand. Steroids and dog fighting mean more than human death?

    J, this is well written and evokes all kind of thought. This is a sports issue because of the connection you so eloquently laid out.

    It just seems to me that people just don’t give a damn.

    Just goes to show how much people are frustrated with their own lives and for some reason or another, choose to vent on something so irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.

    Our military better not skate on this.

  5. Tillman’s story takes on more and more complexity that really gets to a bad conclusion about the lengths to which some will go in order to further a narrative.

  6. jayhawker Says:

    I completely agree: The unquestioning glorification of militarism is deeply embedded in the NFL, by far the most popular sport in America; and ESPN’s recent embrace of NASCAR only deepens the link between mainstream sport media and shallow yet rabid “God Bless America” patriotism.

    I think that this whole tragedy will be swept under the rug by sports media unless one of Tillman’s former teammates or another active NFL player speaks out about this horrific turn of events and the illegal war underlying it–a Muhammad Ali figure, so to speak, who breaks the subservient silence.

  7. Guys, I’ll tell you, I wouldn’t bother to write about sports if I didn’t think they meant something about what it is to be human. I suspect all of you feel something similar.

  8. As of 3:11 pm eastern time, July 27, the story is on ESPN.COM.

  9. This is absolutely a sports story…and it goes to the heart of the unasked question. Sportswriters gave MLB a pass on steroids in 1998 (and years before). Sportswriters are not asking questions about the scope of dog fighting across the nation. At some point, the Ostrich Complex must be conquered – and this is a sports story until those demons are exorcised. Perhaps the sports guys need to do an apprenticeship with some reporters who don’t survive on beer and hot dogs.

    And you’re right…it’s bigger than Vick or Bonds or Pac Man or Donaghy.

  10. T3-
    true…I’m glad JWeiler is touching on this because I cannot – I just haven’t been able to get beyond all the implications of the incident. I’d end up with a book….

  11. Great piece, jw. First I’d heard of this. This is definitely a sports story, but it’s also much more than that. And you’re spot on in comparing it to Vick, Donaghy, et al.

  12. I really dislike Sally Jenkins.

  13. Cornelius Says:

    I read that his last quote was a different one:

    In his last words moments before he was killed, Tillman snapped at a panicky comrade under fire to shut up and stop “sniveling.”

    The link this came from was forwarded to me, so I don’t know anything particular about the site it came from.

    (Extra P- you have think that sometimes hollywood type culture seeps into other facets of the world)

  14. This story just gets worse and worse. Hopefully at some point the truth will come out so that Tillman’s mother can get some kind of closure.

  15. Man j, you hit the nail on the head with this one. People don’t want to hear about the military doing irresponsible and immoral things. It hurts the “American conscience.” People in this country can’t face up to real, hard-hitting, bad things that happen, so they latch on to things like the Vick case. People in this country can’t handle the extreme poverty in places like China, India, and Africa. They can’t face the fact that there is a genocide going on. And they can’t face the fact that sometimes these heroes in our military aren’t the greatest set of guys in the world (witness the coverage of that rape and murder of the Iraqi girl and her family a year or so back).

  16. “No evidence at all of enemy fire was found at the scene — no one was hit by enemy fire, nor was any government equipment struck”


    Sad story all the way around…

  17. I haven’t been following this closely, but am I correct in saying that his mother has alleged he was murdered for quite some time now?

  18. T3-
    yes she has…

  19. HarveyDent Says:

    The Pat Tillman odyssey is like a train wreck that I can’t turn away from to use a cliche’ because I just can’t get a read on this guy. I think I can appreciate he loved his country enough to give up his NFL career but I can’t understand why a supposedly well-read person would willingly sign up for a ride on the Neocons’ Magical Mystery War Tours. Guess it’s just the natural cynic in me but I told my lady at the time that GW Bush and his ilk would be the worst thing to happen to this country in our lifetimes and seeing the way that guys like Tillman and all the others who’ve died since 9/11 on all sides in this ‘farce on terrorism’ only confirms this for me.

  20. Saladin Says:

    Just want to quickly drop you all a line and say that this post, as well as multiple others on this site was excellent. Thanks for being the Free Huey (shining the black light of truth) Report of the interweb

  21. Devastating, devastating stuff JW.

    Great history, great connections, great questions.

    The MSM doesn’t know what the hell to do with this.

  22. Great Piece JW, TRUE JOURNALISM, I could never never never read this from any corporate media outlet. Brilliant and enlightening! Thanks for sharing!!!

  23. OK, a bit OT but ehhh. I guess given the current media atmosphere, this isn’t too far-from-the-norm, but as Eschaton ( says about guests on political jabber shows on Sun, document the atrocities. Anyway, some dude on This Is CNN said that (and with a very presumptuous perspective) that Michael Vick supposedly engaging in dog-fighting is worse than Kobe raping a girl (which….you know……he wasn’t convicted of). But you say tom-A-to, I say to-mah-……So to recap, Michael Vick’s actions, who has been charged with something but not convicted of anything yet, are worse than the charges which #8 beat. Additionally, this man ruled that water is dry and that the Hawks will win the next 8 championships. This Is CNN, The most trusted name in news. (after the Onion) (

  24. Not that this is a very original thought I don’t think, but the reason, at least to me, for flyovers at the Super Bowl, during World Series, or other military tributes at prominent sporting events, is to co-opt the viewer’s almost unshakeable support for the sporting event. The military knows that sports fans are loyal to their teams and they also know that if they can consistently insert some expression of military strength in a big sporting event that the average sports viewer will likely associate the two, without thinking clearly whether or not this association is warranted. (And of course, the very fact that such a random association is included so frequently should be your tip that…..hell no, football is not war………how many of us wouldn’t agree to play sports for even a tiny bit more money than we currently earn. It’s still a game. And that is ultimately all. But that’s also why we love watching. Coz at its root, sports is the purest expression of competition and the way in which, if there is no cheating (admittedly a big if) the better man (or woman) will win). The military knows that people area more loyal to their sports teams than to their government in many cases (at least I probably am) and so if it can get a foothold in sports fans’ consciousness, it will probably be able to link the two thinks in an almost Pavlovian manner, in the best case scenario. Anyway…..that’s my $.02 anyway. And I must admit, I’m pretty shocked by this latest development in the Tillman story. I am skeptical, but I give people the benefit of the doubt until they give me a reason not to. And so it honest to God hadn’t even crossed my mind that the Cheney regime would even consider killing one of their own. It certainly seems plausible…..and really……well, it just makes me heartsick. I guess (if it turns out that Tillman was indeed killed by his own men (it’s hard just to type that)) that it’s no wonder the Cheney regime was claiming exec privilege regarding the release of more material relating to his case. Still….this is just….I didn’t think I could become that much more contemptuous of the Cheney administration…but if this turns out to be true, I will be.

  25. 19-I think this just speaks to how cravenly cynical Monkey Boy and Snarl are and how different We The People are. I’m very idealistic still. I think if you believe in the full promises of the amazing documents on which this country was founded, and all the hype about the US being the land of the free etc., you realize that the ideals might be Platonic, but if ideals aren’t worth striving for, what else do you have? If the ideals mean nothing, well hell, we might as well just admit to being Nazi Germany right now and give it up right now. I can understand Tillman’s idealism. If you don’t have ideals, or hope, what do you have? It’s what makes Bush and Cheney all the more craven and evil by comparison though. Anyway, I know part of my belief in the ideals of this country are growing up in another country where you see the movies, you see the TV shows, you see all the handsome smiling people and you think, well how could that be a bad country? And it’s not……but when you have freedom, you also have the freedom to undercut the essence of what this country should stand for. All I can say is that, even though I knew the scales were over my eyes, I didn’g submit to cynicism because, well, you shouldn’t. However, over the last 6.5 years in particular, the betrayal of anything that can be deemed worthwhile and admirable seems to have been undertaken. Again, I wasn’t without cynicism before that I saw the country as ideal, far from it, but under Cheney, the country has become that much worse. Anyhoo, I can certainly relate to Tillman because I think he thought that by setting such a good example, that he might be able to persuade others to work for America’s best interests. That’s my $.02 anyway.

  26. TheLastPoet Says:


    Am I mistaken, or didn’t Kobe Bryant ever actually go to trial for rape? He was indicted, sure, but didn’t the white girl back out, and accept an undisclosed amount of cash? Not that it invalidates your point at all, but I’m just trying to keep the facts straight.

    Anyway, JWeiler,

    Nice work. I never paid much attention to the Tillman murder, because when he died I immediately called bullshid on the way he was being portrayed in the media as some sort of sacrificial lamb in and to the US military industrial complex.

    Now that the truth is finally starting to shine through the fraud, the story gets more interesting – and much more heinous.

    But this is exactly the kind of truth we need to awaken the “silent majority” (that’s your mainstream, garden variety, everyday bystanding white american – and their Black lackeys) to the truth about this country of ours Notice I did say “ours,” but what are we gonna do to truly make this place something that not only we can be proud of, but that the rest of the world can believe in as well?

    Lemme tell you, murdering your good ol boys aint it, America.

    Wake the fuck up, or get woke the fuck up.

    Your call.

  27. LastPoet: yeah, he went to trial, and you’re right, I think they did reach some sort of financial settlement. As he said, it was not an admission of guilty, but thanks for correcting. You’re quite right. Yeah Poet, I dunno, I really wonder, I don’t have much hope that garden-variety, Gap-shopping, Desperate Housewives-watchin’, NASCAR-watchin’, occasional weed-smokin’, two pick-up truck, 2.2 kid-havin’ families can be roused. Really……Hurricane Katrina wasn’t enough? Illegal wiretapping isn’t enough? 1 out of 8 Iraqis being transformed into refugees isn’t enough? Declaration of himself as King George the Stupid isn’t enough? Really, I’m fairly hopeless. I’m happy to be perusaded otherwise, but I’m not very hopeful.

  28. TheLastPoet Says:

    Brother TC,

    You went from idealistic to not very hopeful in the span of two comments, my man! But I feel you – not too much to get excited about in the US anymore.

    What I mean when I say the Gap-wearers can potentially be roused is this: note the singular difference between every example you gave (from Katrina to dead Iraqis) and the one example I gave, ie, Tillman is white american, whereas the dead Iraqis and most of the Katrina victims are of color. My point is that once NASCAR nation begins to recognize that THEY TOO can be deeply effected by the Bushies, and that the lies and exploitation are not limited to some faceless Muslims or Blacks, then perhaps they’ll rise up off of their collective asses.

    Keep the faith, baby!

  29. JWeiler,
    Outstanding work. I can’t say that enough. For me, this touches so many parts of my life. I was in the military for over 4 years and still work for a part of the government that still deals with the wars so on a daily basis I am inundated with neo-conservative rah rah go America views. Some of it is admirable, some downright sickening (I swear if we do what so many want and invade Iran I am quiting). And I also own a Pat Tillman jersey, which I wear on Veterans Day, etc.

    The basis of the military is of course, in order to survive in combat you have to see in black or white. Kill or be killed. Shoot the enemy before he shoots you. And this mantra is taught from the first day of training. The problem with the military is that it tries to black/white good/bad issues that are beyond combat. Pat Tillman’s final moments were definitely black and white once bullets started firing. Before and after that, however, was and is a grey zone, as are most of the decisions in life.

    The military is compared to sports because it too is black/white: you either win or you lose. Only recently have we been more open to the stories behind sports, but the bottom line is victory on the field of battle. It’s what attracts us to Tillman – that he went from one field to another field.

    Is he still a sports story? No. But attaching him to sports makes him more than a minor story about something that goes on mostly unreported in the military. If using Tillman’s fame opens eyes to something bad in the military, I don’t mind the headline being on ESPN.

  30. JWeil: I’m still optimistic…gotta be. What I meant is that increasingly, it’s clear the depravity of this administration. It’s like Oscar Wilde said, “We’re all in the gutter, it’s just that some of us are looking up”. Or like Monty Python said, “Always look on the bright side of life.”

    I understand your point about the Tillman case possibly being a galvanic (is that a word) moment….but really…..the atrocities that have happened that should have meant something to just plain white folks really should have kicked in a long time ago. I’m not American, but I am white and I just see so much complacency, still, from white Americans. I get e-mails from family and friends around the world asking what the fuck is going on there. Hell, I was getting these e-mails in 2003. And I tell them now, as I was telling them then, I have no idea. I’m hopeful LastPoet, but, as you know, talk is cheap. Anyway…..’nuff about me. Stay strong.

  31. TC:

    Not to rain on your parade (#25), but the nation was founded by one document that refers to “merciless indian savages” and excluded language on slavery while raising opposition to the “tyranny” of an English king. The other document, which asserted Africans were essentially 3/5 human was not approved for 13 years and had to amended 15 times before lawmakers got around to a semblance of rights for those Africans.

    If you follow the letter of the “amazing documents,” it’s best to be white and a man. If you allow that there are two types of people in the world: those who believe what you say AND those who believe what you do – only the former could affirm what has been a mostly uninterrupted march along a single path. I don’t have the luxury of being in that first group. I’ll keep my skepticism and my advocacy in this den of thieves.

    You raise a great point with respect to Nazi Germany – but that’s not the model. The model is Rome – that’s not a secret. With that said, the US has always had a healthy respect for the Nazis…after all it was the Nazis who accelerated the US national defense and space exploration programs after WWII. In a manner of speaking, where would America be without the Nazis – certainly without an excuse for intervention in the Middle East.

  32. Nah, fair enuff Temple 3….I know things were less than perfect. I thought about making that point more explicit. I’m well aware of this country’s oppression of many groups and your points are well-taken. I just thought for the purposes of that post it was more important to emphasize how much worse things are now…..or maybe they aren’t. Anyway, your points are well-taken. And you’re probably right about Rome instead of Nazi Germany too, although such distinctions are probably about as helpful as polishing the handrails on the Titanic (either way, we’re going down). But again, you’re probably right and your points are very well-taken.

  33. jweiler,

    good analysis.

    32 posts in 24 hours. Congrats.


  34. jweiler Says:

    I don’t want to sound patronizing here, but I just want to chime into say that one of the pleasures of writing for TSF is the immense intelligence of you all who read it and contribute your thoughts and comments to it. The comments here well exemplify that.

    So, thanks for that.

  35. excellent article/column/essay (I don’t know which is appropriate).
    Your portrait of the willingness of the military to exploit football and the willingness of football (at all levels) to be exploited crystallizes something that has rattled around in my mind since we started playing football again after 9/11.
    I’m a white southern male who loves his football but I wonder how long I can keep it up in the current climate. Before every New Orleans Saints game the crowd is asked to stand for the National Anthem in part to honor the men and women “defending Peace and Freedom” around the world. I thought that was Orwellian before 9/11; after the criminal invasion of Iraq it became an obscenity.
    I don’t know what happened to Pat Tillman but I can imagine the reaction he must have inspired among some of his fellow Rangers and especially among some of his officers. Today’s “Army of One” is no place for an original thinker (has it ever been?). Someone who could separate himself from his context and critically analyze the politics of the war he was fighting, someone who probably scoffed at the “good guys/bad guys” method of “educating” US fighting men, was bound to become a target.

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