Where was the Pat Tillman Story on NFL Sunday?

In 2004, President George W. Bush appeared on the Jumbotron at Arizona’s Sun Devil stadium to address the combat death of former NFL player turned Army Ranger, Pat Tillman.  Bush said: “Pat Tillman loved the game of football. Yet, as much as Pat Tillman loved competing on the football field, he loved America even more… Courageous and humble, a loving husband and son, a devoted brother and a fierce defender of liberty. Pat Tillman will always be remembered.”


But Sunday--- while NFL teams around the country commemorated the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks---Pat’s name was only mentioned before the game in Arizona.  In stadium after stadium, in pregame show after pregame show, as the NFL’s 9/11 commemoration strategy was rolled out with lockstep discipline, Tillman’s name was conspicuously absent.


George W. Bush certainly got his moment in the spotlight, receiving a standing ovation by 70,000 fans at the Meadowlands. On other football fields, massive flags were unfurled, “official NFL/9/11 logos” were unveiled, soldiers were cheered, Reebok’s “We Will Never Forget” 9/11 gear was worn, and yet it was as if Pat Tillman had never existed.


The NFL’s media man, Brian McCarthy, vigorously contested this when we called for comment. “Yesterday was a day to remember to those who lost lives on 9/11...We did not single out any NFL player that had been in the military. We saluted all military members around the country and the world. Pat means so much to the NFL. We have funded the “Pat Tillman USO Center,” a USO center in his name in Afghanistan at Bagram [Airfield]. We also worked with his wife Marie on the creation of the NFL scholarship. The first thing you see in the NFL [New York] building is Pat’s jersey. He is very dear to the. NFL family. We salute him every day. If [you are] trying to create controversy there is none.”


I respectfully disagree. I don’t contest that Tillman’s jersey is in the NFL office, or that “he is honored every day.” But I think it’s worth asking why the NFL paid so little attention to Pat. It’s worth asking because the answer says a great deal.


Pat Tillman is the only NFL player – or professional athlete – to die in the theater of war since September 11th, 2001. He walked away from millions of dollars to join the U.S. Army because of the way 9/11 shook his system. On 9/12/01, Tillman gave an interview where he said, “My great-grandfather was at Pearl Harbor and a lot of my family has gone and fought in wars, and I really haven’t done a damn thing.”


Twenty-two months after enlisting, Pat Tillman was dead. His memorial service was aired on national television. The Army awarded him a Silver Star for his “gallantry in action against an armed enemy.” They said TillmanΚΌs convoy had been ambushed in Afghanistan. They said Tillman charged up a hill to protect his men but was shot down by the Taliban. Responding to this heroic story, the NFL, as they are quick to mention, created statues and memorials in his honor.


Why didn’t we hear Tillman’s name on Sunday? It’s because the Pentagon’s official story, the very story the NFL initially embraced, is an awful lie. Tillman actually died in friendly fire, a fact that was criminally hidden from his family, his fans, and to the greater public. Tillman also began to turn against the war before his death, telling friends in the Rangers that he believed the war in Iraq was “illegal.” A voracious reader, he started reading anti-war authors in an attempt to wrap his head around how he had become the most famous solider in an endless conflict.


After the Bush administration finally revealed the truth, Tillman’s shocked family and friends did the only thing they could do: fight to find out the real facts of his death. They went public with the narrative of a Pat Tillman that was inconsistent with the Bush administration and NFL’s. They put forth a Pat Tillman that was an intensely iconoclastic atheist, turning against war.


The misrepresentation of Pat Tillman’s death speaks to the lies used to sell war, and to the way people’s rage and grief was exploited in the wake of 9/11. But thanks to the tireless work of his family, and the creators of the documentary The Tillman Story, his true story is now public knowledge. As Pat’s mother Mary said in The Tillman Story, “I think they just thought, if they spun the story and we found out ... we'd just keep it quiet because we wouldn't want to diminish ...

his heroism or anything like that ... but, you know, nobody questions Pat's heroics. He was always heroic. What they said happened, didn't happen. They made up a story, and so you have to set the record straight.”


In one respect their effort saved Pat Tillman’s name this past Sunday. In the least it saved his family and friends the pain of knowing that Pat was being displayed in a way he would have found, in the words of fellow Ranger Jade Lane, as “criminal.” But the NFL’s exclusion of Tillman in their commemoration is a statement of its own. They could have discussed Tillman’s service in all its complicated, messy glory. They could have respected his sacrifice as well as his inner conflicts. They could have interviewed the eloquent and elegant Mary Tillman on all the pregame shows. The country could have learned not just about Pat Tillman, but that the former Commander in Chief being cheered at the Meadowlands had committed a felony in falsifying the facts of Tillman’s death. It’s an awful story, but it’s real. It's also far from finished. As The Tillman Story director Amir Bar-Lev said: “This is an unsolved mystery; nobody has ever really paid a price for what was done to the Tillmans. No one has taken accountability or made an admission for a deliberate attempt to conceal the truth. This story is not over yet.”


[Dave Zirin is the author of “The John Carlos Story” (Haymarket) and just made the new documentary “Not Just a Game.” Receive his column every week by emailing dave@edgeofsports.com. Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.]

8 Reader Comments | Add a comment

I avoided sports last Sunday

I knew the whole day would be a glorification of lies. So, I watched The Tillman Story on cable, and called it a day.


From warrior hero to persona non grata - why? The last thing the NFL wants to do is get controversial - might disturb ticket sales. The awful truth that the politicos, the media types and the NFL are avoiding
is that Tillman was murdered because he was about to return the the US and become a strong, defiant, and unimpeachable voice against the war.

My, McCarthy sounds familiar...

The NFL's Brian McCarthy accused you of "creating controversy"? Sound familiar, Dave?

Anther unsung hero of 9/11

Also noteworthy...HBO Real Sports did a story years back about a rugby player that was on the hijacked flight with Todd Beamer, "Let's roll". They showed highlight after highlight of this rugby player just thrashing people on the rugby field. You tell me if he wasn't handling some serious business as they fought the terrorists on that flight. He has hardly been mentioned in the mainstream press. Nobody knows for sure as to why, but it could be because he was an openly gay man from San Francisco.

What if?

I often wonder how things might have been different if PT had made it home to share his experience and ideas about the war. He would have taken heroism to a new place, I'm sure. Thanks, DZ, for continuing to cover the Tillman story.


So done with the BS....

There is so much I could say, but I'll keep it personal.

I'm 51 years old. I've been a Mets fan since 1965, a Jets fan since 1967. Among the other sports I once followed is professional tennis. Despite the ever-increasing politicalization and commercialization of professional sports (and college athletics have to be included) I remained a fan, preferring to view the events for what I wanted them to be-- purely contents between teams or individuals only.

No more. After fans at [the Mets home stadium] chanted "USA. USA..." en mass after Bin Laden was "killed" (strong evidence points to him dying of natural causes in 2004); after GWB was given a standing ovation by a stadium full of morons; after "9-11-01" is printed on the Arthur Ashe Stadium court and members of the military are ceremonially lauded as "heroes"-- I AM DONE.

There are much more pleasant and productive ways to spend my time than to have to deal with hypocrisy and BS. So, despite their unexpectedly difficult season so far, GO UNIVERSITY OF PORTLAND PILOTS WOMAN'S SOCCER....

Pat Tillman Story

It is becoming harder and harder to see sports as a bastion against the corporatization of life in the U.S. I am a theater artist and what I love about my work is similar to what I get from watching sports: a feeling of collaboration, of achieving something together with a group of people, something that ultimately passes away (a play, a game). It is a reminder of the temporality of life and the primacy of relationship. We live when we choose to be present to ourselves and others. Heroism is an overused word these days. Brecht has a quote: "...unlucky is the land that needs heroes." Heroism is a solution of last resort. War a sign of our mutual failure at nurturing relationship. this may seem new agey, but cutting away all the noise, that is what it comes down to. I like to believe that Mr. Tillman was struggling to reconcile the fact of war with the fact of human suffering and our struggle to live up to the ideals of mutuality and freedom. We need to cry our own tears, not someone else's.

Pat Tillman NFL and media hypocrisy

Hello everyone.... It's a travesty that US miliitary veteran Pat Tillman was ignored on the 9/11 anniversary. I was a sports reporter in Dallas, Texas when he enlisted. I had interviewed him because I regularly covered the Dallas Cowboys.
I was sickened by two experiences related to his enlistment.
1- The day it became public info, ESPN ran wall-to-wall coverage of his story -- his devotion to country -- his attitude of taking the fight to the "evil-doers." Glorification of sacrifice over multi-millions of dollars.
2- Then, he day of his funeral, again, I was in FOX affiliate office. I expected wall-to-wall coverage and homages to the fallen sports hero-turned-true hero. But, where was it?
Yes, a mention of it.. but no NFL network non-stop reporting.... so salute from then-pres. GW Bush. The weather report got as much coverage.
A national disgrace, a journalistic disgrace. Fairness, even-handedness in reporting.
Did not exist that day. Rarely exists now. Thanks for reading- @EducatingNita

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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