Pat Tillman is not your puppet


Dave Myers via Twitter

World News Editor Patrick Kane discusses how the NFL continues to manipulate the public perception of the late Pat Tillman (pictured here during his time with the Arizona Cardinals and in his official military portrait).

Patrick Kane, World News Editor

This past Sunday’s Super Bowl will forever be known for the late holding penalty that retroactively turned one of the most exciting games in recent memory into Roger Goodell polishing the Lombardi for Patrick Mahomes for a whole 60 minutes. But in the few days since the game, it’s become about something else entirely: the continued whitewashing of Pat Tillman.

For those not in the know or are too young to remember, Pat Tillman was a promising young football player with the Arizona Cardinals of the National Football League in the late 1990s and early 2000s. After the 9/11 terror attacks, Tillman felt compelled to do more to aid his country in an incredibly uncertain time. In May 2002, he turned down a new contract offer and enlisted into the military alongside his brother, eventually becoming an Army Ranger.

Naturally, the NFL and the U.S. military did not hesitate to use Tillman’s patriotism to their advantage, using his story for recruiting and PR. However, all of that would change one day in 2004.

On Apr. 7, 2004, Pat Tillman was killed-in-action in Spera, a village in the Khost Province of Afghanistan. The initial reports said that his unit was ambushed by enemy combatants and that he and a U.S.-allied Afghan militia fighter died in the engagement.

The nation went into mourning. The Arizona Cardinals would retire his number and induct him into their Ring of Honor. America’s favorite son left a life of privilege and status to heroically give his life in service of his country. You couldn’t write a better, more tragic script if you tried.

However, after Tillman’s funeral, new information started to come to light. The military had not been initially forthright with Tillman’s family. Members of Tillman’s unit had reportedly been instructed to lie to Tillman’s family and ended up burning both his body armor and his journal in a flagrant violation of protocol.

Finally, weeks after the Tillmans buried their son, the U.S. military revealed the truth; Pat Tillman was not killed by enemy combatants, but rather in a friendly fire incident and military authorities had known that from the start. According to Tillman’s parents, the military covered up the circumstances surrounding Tillman’s death because the idea of such a high-profile soldier dying an utterly avoidable death would hurt recruitment and the war’s PR.

The U.S. military used the story of Pat Tillman’s life and death for their own means, knowing that it was them who bore responsibility for his early and tragic demise. However, don’t think for a moment that the truth being exposed stopped anyone.

Which brings us back to Sunday night. During the opening coin toss, the NFL took a moment to recognize scholars of the Pat Tillman Foundation, a non-profit created by Tillman’s family that rewards military veterans with academic scholarships and networking opportunities. Of course, that meant it had to be accompanied by a montage of video clips and images set to patriotic music narrated by (who else?) Kevin Costner. Yet, one thing that Costner said spawned mass outrage:

“[Tillman] gave up his NFL career to join the Army Rangers and ultimately lost his life in the line of duty.”

For any aspiring writers out there, this is what we call “passive voice.” An extremely flagrant example, at that.

Naturally, many took to social media to express their outrage at the continued manipulation of Tillman’s life and image even nearly two decades after his death. Instead of genuinely honoring a man’s legacy of service and sacrifice, the NFL instead furthered a narrative that honestly does a disservice to Tillman, especially if one actually looks into the man himself. 

Pat Tillman was not this God-fearing uber patriot that bled red, white and blue. Tillman was an atheist. And, while he did answer the call in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Tillman became somewhat disillusioned and even outright opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq to the point where he called it “f*cking illegal.” In fact, Tillman was supposed to meet with prolific left-wing academic and staunch Iraq War critic Noam Chomsky after he returned from Afghanistan, leaving open the possibility that he might have actively campaigned against the war after his enlistment.

Diluting Pat Tillman’s legacy as simply “Patriotic hero who tragically yet proudly gave his life for a noble cause,” is not only built on the back of a disgusting lie but also deliberately misinforms the public about the man he actually was. I know that in recent years the NFL (and the sport of football in general) has been addicted to these grand displays of patriotism and Tillman’s story, on paper, is just too good to pass up. But in doing so, the NFL and the military continue to dig up this man’s corpse and puppet him around as this pseudo-Messianic paragon and not as a complicated man who shouldn’t be put into a box.

Pat Tillman was many things. A son, a husband, an athlete, a soldier. But he is not a propaganda piece. He wasn’t in 2004, and he shouldn’t be in 2023.