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 tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks—Pat’s name was mentioned only 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 11, 2001. He walked away from millions of dollars to join the US 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 Tillmanʼs 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 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 antiwar 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, “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.”