At last Sunday’s Super Bowl, the NFL played a video tribute to deceased Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman. The league recounted Tillman’s legacy and recognized four “Tillman Scholars” on field prior to the coin toss. Kevin Costner narrated the star-spangled memorial to over 100 million viewers, saying that Tillman left the NFL to join the Army after 9/11 and “lost his life in the line of duty.”
While that video is accurate, the real details are less “Disney movie” and more “war fodder.”
After four seasons in the NFL, Tillman enlisted in the Army on Sept. 12, 2001. At 25 years old, he declined a $3.6 million deal with the Arizona Cardinals to serve his country. When patriotic unity gripped the U.S., Tillman symbolized the ideal American citizen, sacrificing himself for the greater good.
Tillman toured Iraq in 2003.
He enlisted with plans of fighting the perpetrators of 9/11 but arrived in a nation that proved to have no tie whatsoever to the terrorist attacks. Tillman was a free-thinker who called the Iraq invasion “f—king illegal” in conversations with his brother Kevin — who also enlisted post-9/11 — and he planned to meet with MIT’s well-known anti-war scholar and author Noam Chomsky, according to The Intercept.
Tillman remained committed to his duty, despite his personal objections to U.S. military policy.
He deployed to Afghanistan in 2004, where he was killed by gunfire while on patrol in Afghanistan, according to History.com.
The Army initially reported that Tillman died at the hands of enemy forces. Tillman was praised as a national hero and awarded a Purple Heart, among other honors.
After weeks of official denial, the truth surfaced: Tillman was killed by friendly fire — three shots to the head.
“Commemorations of Tillman’s courage and sacrifice offered contrasting images of honorable service, undisturbed by questions about possible command or battlefield mistakes," the Washington Post reported in 2004.
According to his family, the military knew who killed Tillman all along. They criticized the government for intentionally distorting Tillman’s death to improve public opinion of the unpopular war.
“I will go so far as to say the [George W. Bush] administration believed that this was something that just couldn’t be admitted to,” Mary Tillman, Pat’s mother, said in a 2008 NPR interview. “And they thought they could also use it as an opportunity.”
While the truth of Tillman’s death eventually came to light, that didn’t stop the U.S. military and its best friend — the NFL — from using his image and story to produce pro-government, pro-military and pro-war propaganda.
In the pre-Super Bowl video, Tillman’s sacrifice of NFL money in exchange for military service is painted as a heroic, righteous move.
And it was.
But remember who really benefited from his sacrifice. Did the people of the U.S., or Iraq, or Tillman’s family benefit from his selfless deeds?
Or did the NFL military-industrial complex?
In February 2023, before America’s biggest TV event of the year, the circumstances surrounding Pat Tillman’s death were glossed over and dumbed down. The casual observer sees him as another loyal patriot who died defending liberty and justice.
Next time you see Pat Tillman’s name used to promote the military and NFL, remember the truth surrounding his tragic death. The same organizations that covered up his death, and used it as a marketing tool, are currently encouraging other young people to enlist and fight in America’s endless and unnecessary “War on Terror.”
Is that what he died for?
Ryan Tantalo is the senior sports editor and can be reached at email@example.com