You've come to an old part of SW Online. We're still moving this and other older stories into our new format. In the meanwhile, click here to go to the current home page.

From NFL star to Washington's war hero
Exploiting his death

By Dave Zirin | May 7, 2004 | Page 9

WHEN PAT Tillman walked away from the National Football League (NFL) to join the Army Rangers, rivulets of saliva flowed from the White House to the Defense Department. Here was the Arizona Cardinals' record-setting safety turning his back on a $3.5 million contract to "fight the war on terror."

Immediately, Madison Avenue PR firms, hired by the Defense Department with our tax dollars, began churning out releases exalting "The American Athlete at War" replete with stories of Ted Williams' flying missions over the Pacific. The confederate confines of talk radio spoke of Tillman as "the real American hero" making "the ultimate sacrifice." One wonders if James Earl Jones had already been contracted to bleat, "Pat Tillman: An Army of One."

There was just one problem. Tillman wouldn't play their game. He turned down hundreds if not thousands of interviews and photo ops. He refused to be in any recruitment videos or on a single poster.

Soon, the story of "NFL player Pat Tillman in the Army Rangers" faded into the next news cycle. A year went by without a mention. No one tracked the day when his shoulder-length hair was shaved to the scalp. No one snapped shots of his time in the "Army Ranger Indoctrination Program."

No one knew about his first tour in Iraq. But last Friday in Afghanistan when Tillman was killed, the gears of the machine started to turn. As Tillman's family and football fans grieved, the Bush war machine and their cronies sprang into action. In death, a compliant Tillman could prove far more useful to the masters of war than in life.

In "Dead Tillman," the Washington establishment finally gets a dead soldier they can cozy up to. "Where do we get such men as these? Where to we find these people willing to stand up for America?" asked Arizona Republican Rep. J.D. Hayworth, as he dived in front of the nearest camera. "He chose action rather than words. He was a remarkable person. He lived the American dream, and he fought to preserve the American dream and our way of life."

Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), son of the late Hall of Fame coach, sent a letter to NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue asking the league to dedicate the season to Tillman and other U.S. soldiers "serving in the war on terrorism." And, of course, former Texas Rangers owner George W. Bush jumped into the fray, commenting that "Tillman was an inspiration both on and off the football field."

At a time when the U.S.'s "coalition of the willing" is ditching Bush like he has plague and the Iraqi resistance mushrooms, "Dead Tillman" has been treated at 1600 Pennsylvania like Christmas in April. The former 7th round draft pick will be their symbol, as the White House commented, of "all we are fighting for."

Yet Pat Tillman is in no way the typical face of the dead U.S. soldier. In fact, like so much of Bush's global conquest, this is a bloody lie. The face of the typical dead U.S. soldier is not a 27-year-old man walking away from millions of dollars to make "the ultimate sacrifice."

The dead soldier is far more likely to be in Iraq or Afghanistan beyond their tour of duty. The dead soldier, chances are, was suffering from depression and crushingly low morale in the days before their death. The dead soldier was making $18,000 a year and possibly living on food stamps. There is a 35 percent chance the dead soldier is Black or Latino.

While one NFL millionaire served in "Operation Enduring Occupation," there are 37,000 non-citizens occupying Iraq to benefit from a new program that allows immigrants who serve to apply for citizenship immediately and not wait the usual five years. Maybe the dead soldier was recruited in the U.S. Army's new number one recruitment spot: Tijuana, Mexico.

The true face of the dead U.S. soldier, and the growing anger of their families, is why Commander in Chief Bush has boycotted all of their funerals. It's why photos of flag-draped coffins had to be smuggled out. It is why the workers who took those photos have been fired.

With Tillman, Bush is hoping to do what his train wreck of a press conference April 13 failed to do--shore up support for his Middle Eastern slaughter. But not everyone is taking the bait. In fact, by "humanizing" the death of a popular ex-football player, Bush could be running right into some hardcore necessary roughness.

Sports fans and scribes aren't the mindless patriots that the White House, and much of the left, believes. The public parade of "Dead Tillman" can breed a variety of reactions. Nationally renowned--and ceaselessly apolitical--sports columnist Mike Lupica wrote, "Pat Tillman got to live out his professional dreams for a little while. What about all the ones dying over there who didn't?"

The ESPN show, The Sports Reporters, commented, "The White House has no right to say anything about the death of Tillman since it doesn't want to show pictures of the dead. They can't have it both ways."

On what is possibly the most frat boy-drenched sports radio show, The Jungle with Jim Rome, one caller identified himself as an ex-soldier from Arizona and said, "The president needs to take a long look in the mirror and try to figure out if this is worth it." He then paused and said, "War to no one. Fight for peace."

Pat Tillman played football with a relentless intensity. Wait for the look on Bush's face when the folks who cheered for Pat, fight with that same intensity against the war that took his life.

Check out more of Dave Zirin's sports writing at

Home page | Back to the top