As ESPN.com and Deadspin noted yesterday, Kevin Tillman, brother of the late Pat Tillman, has written a scathing attack on America’s political leadership over at truthdig.com.</>
Here’s an excerpt (http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/200601019_after_pats_birthday/):
“Somehow our elected leaders were subverting international law and humanity by setting up secret prisons around the world, secretly kidnapping people, secretly holding them indefinitely, secretly not charging them with anything, secretly torturing them. Somehow that overt policy of torture became the fault of a few “bad apples” in the military.”
Somehow American leadership, whose only credit is lying to its people and illegally invading a nation, has been allowed to steal the courage, virtue and honor of its soldiers on the ground.
Somehow those afraid to fight an illegal invasion decades ago are allowed to send soldiers to die for an illegal invasion they started.
Somehow faking character, virtue and strength is tolerated.
Somehow profiting from tragedy and horror is tolerated.
Somehow the death of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people is tolerated.
Somehow subversion of the Bill of Rights and The Constitution is tolerated.
Somehow suspension of Habeas Corpus is supposed to keep this country safe.
Somehow torture is tolerated.
Somehow lying is tolerated.
Somehow reason is being discarded for faith, dogma, and nonsense.
Somehow American leadership managed to create a more dangerous world.
Somehow a narrative is more important than reality.”
Deadspin, which described Tillman’s missive as “powerful,” suggested that this wasn’t really a sports story at all. But, it noted that ESPN.com had made the Tillman piece a lead headline on its website yesterday. And, major sports venues have taken an interest in the story of Pat Tillman’s death. Sports Illustrated featured a powerful piece by Gary Smith in September and ESPN has shown a surprising and ongoing interest in Tillman’s story. In July, Mike Fish wrote a three-part story exploring the circumstances of the friendly fire incident that killed Pat Tillman death, the investigation (including initial cover-up) of that incident and its aftermath. Two weeks ago, Bob Ley’s Outside the Lines interviewed several members of the Tillmans’ platoon in Afghanistan about how the day on which Tillman died unfolded. And, as noted above, ESPN made Kevin Tillman’s statement a top headline yesterday.
This is appropriate for the following reason: Major American
sports have committed themselves not only to patriotism in the abstract, but to
a particular understanding of patriotism. There are so many examples to choose
from to illustrate the point: from fighter jets flying over stadiums during war
time, as happened in Tampa Bay in January 1991, just before the Giants squared
off against the Bills in Super Bowl XXV, and just days after the US began the
air campaign of the first Gulf war; from the endless profession of admiration
for our men and women in uniform for protecting our freedoms in Iraq, by
commentators, PA announcers and the like (it’s a partisan, not objectively true
understanding of our presence in Iraq to assert that the function our military
is serving there is to protect our freedoms); the swift reaction by
commissioners and/or sports pundits to players who lodge any sort of public
protest against symbols of American power (as some view the flag) – the former
NBA player Mahmoud Abduh-Raouf and Carlos Delgado come to mind.
In other words, sports has made a militaristic understanding of patriotism part of its own storylines and central allegiances. Pat Tillman represented, for many, the ultimate nexus of what were perceived to be the shared values of sports and that particular view of patriotism: manliness, physical and mental discipline, individual sacrifice for the sake of a larger good, physical valor as a supreme virtue, and the perception that all these things, wrapped in God and flag, embody “American values.”
The circumstances and aftermath of Pat Tillman’s death have, therefore, caused bitterness among Tillman’s family and supporters about the way in which his life and death were manipulated for purposes other than those given by the army and government. Tillman’s death, and what we’ve come to learn about his own views and motives have also cast doubt on the supposedly seamless connection between sports’ understanding of manly virtue and larger notions of patriotism.
And, given the evidence that Kevin and his brother had very similar feelings about the nature of the war in Iraq in particular, when Kevin Tillman speaks, we can reasonably infer that he speaks, at least in part, for his brother Pat. As Fish wrote in the third part of his three part series in July (http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/eticket/story?page=tillmanpart3):
“[Pat Tillman] wasn't a Republican, and he wasn't a Democrat. He wasn't beholden to President Bush and, by all accounts, didn't vote for him; yet he wanted to fight the president's war on terror. He wasn't religious, yet he read both the Bible and the Koran. Pat and his middle brother Kevin signed up with the Rangers to hunt down Taliban and al-Qaida fighters in Afghanistan, not to serve in the invasion of Iraq. But when President Bush launched the Iraq assault soon after they enlisted, the two Tillman Rangers were part of the initial march to Baghdad.
By the time they left Iraq, Pat and Kevin apparently had become disenchanted with what they perceived to be the administration's ill-conceived plan to run the country it had just conquered and keep order.
Richard, the youngest of the three, recalls sitting around with his brothers when they returned from Iraq and before they were redeployed toAfghanistan. "'Illegal war' came up a couple hundred times. Yeah, they weren't too happy about it," he said. "Afghanistan is one thing. But Iraq is just — that is one they definitely made mention that, 'This is bulls---.' "
To reiterate, the major sporting entities in America have gone to great lengths to promote and ally themselves with a particular view of patriotism and Pat Tillman ought to have been the perfect embodiment of that view. Therefore, the way his own beliefs and life and death expose what’s problematic about that understanding and his brother’s angry denunciation of the war in Iraq - as patriotism and defense of America gone badly awry - does merit attention by sports media, if for no other reason than, perhaps, to compel sports media to scrutinize its own uncritical assumptions about what patriotism, virtue and American values really mean.