Balls and Stripes

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Zina Saunders /

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.”

The hate mail and death threats poured in. These people insisted that the bipartisan war brigade was celebrating his heroism, not exploiting his death–and by not simply standing and saluting, I deserved his fate.

We now know that they were duped about Tillman’s death.

Duped like the country was duped about weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Duped into cheerleading a war that has made the world a more dangerous place and accomplished little more than a new generation of mass graves, containing as many as 1 million Iraqis and more than 5,000 U.S. soldiers. Duped into suffering higher gas prices and diminished civil liberties.

I can only wonder if those who are so protective of Pat Tillman’s memory will ever exhibit a fraction of the bravery shown by Pat’s parents, Patrick and Mary. In 2005, the divorced couple decided to go public with their fury at a government that lied over the body of their dead son.

Patrick and Mary found out that Pat did not die at the hands of the Taliban while he was charging up a hill, but was shot by his own troops in an instance of what military bureaucrats call “fratricide.” Patrick and Mary found out that Tillman’s men realized they had gunned him down “within moments” of his being hit. They know that the soldiers–in an effort to cover up the killing of the All-American poster boy–burned their son’s uniform and body armor.

They learned that over the next 10 days, top-ranking Army officials, including the appropriately titled “theater commander,” Army General John P. Abizaid, hid the truth of Tillman’s death, while Pentagon scriptwriters conjured a Hollywood ending. They know that the Army waited until weeks after the nationally televised memorial service to even clue them in about “irregularities” surrounding their son’s death. And they strongly suspect that the concurrent eruption of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal may have played a role in the cover-up, as the Army attempted to avoid a double public relations disaster.

“After it happened, all the people in positions of authority went out of their way to script this,” Patrick Tillman told the Washington Post. “They purposely interfered with the investigation, they covered it up. [They] realized that their recruiting efforts were going to go to hell in a handbasket if the truth about his death got out. They blew up their poster boy.”

The list of culprits Patrick referred to includes Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, who assumed control of U.S. operations in Afghanistan in 2009. It was McChrystal who awarded Pat Tillman’s posthumous Silver Star, a medal given explicitly for combat, even though he later testified that he “suspected” friendly fire.

Mary Tillman, who like her ex-husband and son is a fiercely private person, was driven to speak with a forceful frankness that should put dissembling military planners to shame.

“It makes you feel like you’re losing your mind, in a way,” she said. “You imagine things. When you don’t know the truth, certain details can be blown out of proportion. The truth may be painful, but it’s the truth. You start to contrive all these scenarios that could have taken place because they just kept lying. If you feel you’re being lied to, you can never put it to rest.”

Now the Tillmans, consciously or not, are lending their voice to a growing chorus of military family members determined to speak out against this war. These grieving people, who have formed organizations like Gold Star Families for Peace and Military Families Speak Out, refuse to be used as political props, choosing instead to make the country bear uncensored witness to their pain.

“Every day is sort of emotional,” Mary Tillman says.

One of the ways the Tillmans are fighting back is by revealing a picture of Pat profoundly at odds with the G.I. Joe image created by Pentagon spinmeisters and their media stenographers. As the San Francisco Chronicle put it in September 2005, family and friends are now unveiling “a side of Pat Tillman not widely known–a fiercely independent thinker who enlisted, fought, and died in service to his country yet was critical of President Bush and opposed the war in Iraq, where he served a tour of duty. He was an avid reader whose interests ranged from history books . . . to works of leftist Noam Chomsky, a favorite author.”

Tillman had very un-embedded feelings about the Iraq war. His close friend Army Specialist Russell Baer recalled, “I can see it like a movie screen. We were outside of [an Iraqi city] watching as bombs were dropping on the town. . . . We were talking. And Pat said, ‘You know, this war is so fucking illegal.’ And we all said, ‘Yeah.’ That’s who he was. He totally was against Bush.”

With these revelations, Pat Tillman as PR icon now joins WMDs and the al-Qaeda connection on the heap of lies used to sell the Iraq war.

The reason this misrepresentation of Pat Tillman matters so much is because it vividly exposes a fault line in the political mythology of sport. It shows how the “real man” myth that gets reinforced in sports culture often marginalizes actual men, whose true acts of courage–even if these take the form of standing up to the government–may be more admirable than the fictional half-truths assigned to them by the media-sports complex.

When military planes fly over the Super Bowl or General David Petraeus tosses the coin to start the Super Bowl, we don’t blink. If going to war isn’t political, then nothing is. Yet this mix of sports and politics seems perfectly natural to us. It’s not seen as political at all.

Condemnation remains for players like Carlos Delgado, who, during his 2004 season with the Toronto Blue Jays, was denounced when he refused to come out for the seventh-inning singing of “God Bless America,” saying, “I don’t [stand] because I don’t believe it’s right, I don’t believe in the war.”

It’s reserved for basketball players like Steve Nash for wearing a T-shirt at the start of the Iraq invasion that read “No war. Shoot for peace.”

It’s reserved for the fiercely brave Manhattanville women’s basketball captain Toni Smith, turning her back on the anthem and igniting a firestorm with her courage.

Pat Tillman was a person who by the end of his life was in flux between warrior and dissenter. Our country should in theory have room for both. Our sports world clearly does not.

Author and sports columnist Dave Zirin was named an Utne visionary in 2009. He is a regular contributor to The Nation, recently published his fifth book, Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love (Scribner, 2010), and hosts Edge of Sports Radio on Sirius XM.

Have something to say? Send a letter to This article first appeared in the July-August 2011 issue of Utne Reader

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