Balls and Stripes

The late Pat Tillman, patriotism, and the militarization of American sports

| July-August 2011

  • balls-and-stripes

    Zina Saunders / www.zinasaunders.com

  • balls-and-stripes

Howard Cosell once said that rule number one of the jockocracy was that sports and politics don’t mix. And yet, if we take an offhand, cursory look at our Sports World, it’s obvious that a certain brand of politics has become part of the game. We saw this after the assassination of Osama bin Laden, when sports fans at arenas around the country broke into spontaneous chants of “USA.” That the media swooned also came as no surprise. After all, when war planes fly over a baseball stadium on opening day or military figures such as General David Petraeus toss the coin before a Super Bowl, the cameras never blink.

This particular mix of sports and political symbolism is so commonplace we’ve come to expect and accept it, just as we’ve come to accept the cartoonish versions of violence that are increasingly prevalent in sports culture. Which raises the question: If the sports-industrial complex routinely glamorizes war and leverages patriotism to fire up its crowds, has it crossed the line that should separate promotion and political propaganda? And, if that divide no longer exists, what effect does that have on the larger culture?

It’s a subject area Pat Tillman would have wanted to explore.

When former Arizona Cardinals football player turned Army Ranger Pat Tillman died in Afghanistan in 2004, people mourned from coast to coast, while the war propaganda machine went into overdrive. We were told that he died a “warrior’s death” charging a hill, urging on his fellow Rangers. His funeral was a nationally televised extravaganza populated by political luminaries like Senator John McCain and Maria Shriver, who came to deliver eulogies over his open grave.



George W. Bush, Tillman’s commander in chief, took time during the presidential campaign to address Cardinals fans on the Jumbotron at Sun Devil Stadium. Then Arizona Congressman J.D. Hayworth, like many of his peers on both sides of the aisle, also sang Tillman’s praises: “He chose action rather than words. He lived the American dream, and he fought to preserve the American dream and our way of life.”

In the wake of the funeral, I wrote a column for The Nation arguing that Tillman—who refused hundreds of Pentagon offers to shill for the “war on terror”—would have been repulsed by all the attention. I wrote that to Bush, McCain, and their pro-war ilk, Tillman was proving far more useful dead than alive. He had joined the Rangers for ideals like freedom and justice, but he fought in a war for oil and empire. I wrote that, in death, Tillman was little more than “a pawn in their game.”