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The Church of Football

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This essay originally appeared on TomDispatch.

3. Did Pat Tillman Die for Our Sins?

About the Author

Robert Lipsyte
Robert Lipsyte, a former sports and city columnist for the New York Times, is Jock Culture correspondent for...

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Joe Hill, Joe Pa, Tebow and Wee Brains.

Jock Culture is a distortion of sports.

"Pro football keeps telling them you can't be second-rate, you have to be winners. No matter who you victimize, no matter how hard you work or who you sacrifice, it's all worth it to be No. 1." - Dave Meggyesy.

Go Google who has been canonized into the Hall of Fame, and you will see that there have been worthy latter-day saints since Lombardi and Namath. The commissioner who followed Rozelle, Paul Tagliabue, expanded the church and filled its coffers. Pro football is considered the national pastime now and its closest rival, NASCAR, proudly proclaims it is using the NFL as its marketing model. Rituals like Monday Night Football have bloomed and faded like guitar masses. More minorities have joined the game and the black quarterback is now commonplace. For the first time, a black head coach will appear in this Super Bowl. In fact, for the first time a black head coach will win a Super Bowl, since both head coaches are black.

There have been faux rebels along the way, more adversaries or Devil's advocates than apostates. Think liberation-theology priests. The Cleveland Browns great running back Jim Brown quit the game at his peak in 1966 to become an actor and then a powerful and positive force among Los Angeles gangs, which are merely another kind of exclusive brotherhood. The St. Louis Cardinals' linebacker Dave Meggyesy has been a continuing progressive voice since the 1970s and recently retired after many years as a players' union official. The running back Dave Kopay, who came out after he quit in 1972, remains a strong voice for gay athletes. He recalls that Lombardi, for whom he played in Washington, made it clear he would allow no gay-bashing in his locker room. Now that's a saint. Of course, America's most famous murder defendant, O.J. Simpson, was also one of the game's premier running backs. I liked him. (That's another story up the road.)

But my point is this: Ghetto activist, socialist, gay hero, (If He Did) It Boy, they all loved the game and somehow reaffirmed its value. I'd say three of them were minor saints and one, well, ask Dr.Falwell if Jesus could have tackled O.J. And then there is Pat Tillman. He could be The One.

He is certainly the most complex and mysterious figure in recent football history. The former NFL defensive back enlisted in the Army Rangers after 9/11 and was killed in Afghanistan by friendly fire. His story was quickly spun by an administration desperate for a hero; he was given a posthumous Silver Star for saving his unit by sacrificing himself. He briefly became a symbol of old-school patriotism. But even after the story was unspun--he was apparently questioning the invasion of, and war in, Iraq (where he had also served) before he was killed--it still made no sense.

Why had he enlisted in the first place? He was twenty-five, recently married and had just more than doubled his salary with a three-year $3.6 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals.

Was he a thrill-seeking psycho or a player who took the responsibilities of citizenship all too seriously? Did he want to make a moral statement or was he thinking ahead to his political CV?

Was his death by fratricide an accident or a homicide? After all, he had reportedly advised fellow Rangers to vote for John Kerry and, on his next leave, was looking forward to meeting Noam Chomsky.

These questions are not answered in the explorations of Tillman's life I've read--Mike Towle's hagiographic biography I've Got Things To Do With My Life and Mike Fish's three-part investigation for ESPN.com last year.

And the Army has yet to fulfill its promise of a satisfactory inquiry.

Tillman--at least in what's been written about him--emerges as a seeker and a mad-dog; a quirky, intellectually and spiritually curious young man who majored in marketing at Arizona State and graduated, with high marks, a semester ahead of his class. As a kid, he was a risk-taker; as a football player, he was bold and ferocious. Small for a college linebacker and slow for an NFL safety, he compensated with vicious hits and smart play. He seems to have had that critical gift a defensive back--and an Army Ranger--needs: He was free of moral delay, that instant of doubt that can cripple a reactive strike. Yet people who knew him talk of his compassion and his need for thoughtful discussion.

Can I lead you to the right place by telling you that he wore his hair very long and that he may have been the only NFL player who rode his old bike (coaster brakes) to training camp? (Coaches and sergeants described him as "humble.") He gave up all that money; he put himself through the hell of Ranger training, Afghanistan as well as Iraq, and then died at the hands of brothers who had sworn the same oaths to higher authority.

You can imagine how close I was to calling Dr. Falwell. Had anyone who played the game come closer to you-know-who? Men got up slowly after Tillman tackled them.

But I had a moral delay. How could I reconcile this thought with what Paul Reynolds, a college teammate of Tillman's, told Towle? "I would talk to him about Jesus Christ and having a faith, oh yeah. We'd talk about God and stuff. But Pat was a thinker. My wife and I would talk about it, wondering how anyone could be as driven and self-motivated as Pat without believing in God. But he was."

So I leave it to you what to make of Pat Tillman. It's something to think about, maybe during half-time on Super Bowl Sunday. Jesus wasn't Jesus either until the writers got hold of the story.

And think about this, as reported by Mike Fish of ESPN.com: The Army officer who directed the first official inquiry into his death, Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, told Fish that he didn't feel driven to identify Tillman's killer or killers, that it didn't really matter, that there would have been no fuss except for Tillman's celebrity and his family's insistence, which might be traced to their lack of Christian faith.

Lt. Col. Kauzlarich added: "When you die, I mean, there is supposedly a better life, right? Well, if you are an atheist and you don't believe in anything, if you die, what is there to go to? Nothing. You are worm dirt. So for their son to die for nothing, and now he is no more--that is pretty hard to get your head around that. So I don't know how an atheist thinks. I can only imagine that that would be pretty tough."

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