Sports as Propaganda: The Death of Pat Tillman

by Randy Shaw on April 26, 2004

As much as we like to think of big-time sports as an escape from the “real” world, there are times when its politically conservative messages must not be ignored. That’s why even non-sports fans should be troubled by the militaristic jingoism that accompanied media coverage
of former NFL star Pat Tillman’s death Thursday night while serving as an Army Ranger in Afghanistan.

Pat Tillman left the Arizona Cardinals football team in May 2002 to join the military as an Army Ranger. It was certainly newsworthy that someone earning big money as a pro athlete would give it up to join the military. But left unspoken in the sports media’s ample coverage of Tillman is the recognition that most Americans dying overseas joined the military for economic reasons. Even the media that supported the war as a fight for freedom find it amazing that anyone would actually sacrifice money to join the warfare.

In the sports world, there was not a hint of ambiguity as to the merits of the cause in which Tillman lost his life. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue stated that “like others protecting our freedom around the world, Pat made the ultimate sacrifice.” After Tagliabue made his statement at the start of Saturday’s NFL draft, the crowd repeatedly
chanted “USA, USA.” ESPN’s NFL Analyst Mark Schlereth stated that “Tillman made the ultimate sacrifice so that the people of the country could be protected.”

ESPN’s Friday night Sports Center was all over the Tillman story, accompanying pictures of Tilllman with waving American flags. ESPN’s website was similarly focused on Tillman, and its NFL Analyst Mark Schlereth stated that “Tillman made the ultimate sacrifice so
that the people of the country could be protected.” The Arizona Cardinals announced they would retire his number and that a plaza surrounding their new stadium would be named “Pat Tillman Freedom Plaza.”

At the same time that the sports world was mounting its tribute to Tillman, Bush campaign operatives and their media allies were questioning Senator John Kerry’s military service during Vietnam. Suddenly, Kerry’s willingness to make “the ultimate sacrifice” and die for his country was no longer a sign of the great moral leadership the media associated with Tillman. In Kerry’s case, the GOP got the
media to raise questions about the nature of Kerry’s war wounds, and whether all three of his Purple Hearts were deserved.

Of course, George W. Bush never made the “ultimate sacrifice” of risking his life for his country. But Bush once owned the Texas Rangers baseball team and claims to like NASCAR, and is regularly praised by sportscasters and writers for being a “real” sports fan and hence a “regular” guy.

Harry Edwards and other social critics of sport have argued that it was no accident that pro football’s popularity rose along with the fighting in Vietnam. The reason football has not been taken up by other countries is that its militarism (“He’s throwing a bomb” to describe a long pass) and inherent violence does not strike a chord in
other lands.

The NFL regularly acts as propagandist for the US military. Any professional athlete questioning whether American troops overseas are really protecting America’s freedom, or are instead a vehicle for US imperialism, would have their endorsements yanked and career shortened.

The NFL and America’s military industrial establishment both reap billions from the actions of young African-American men, many of whom end up broke, maimed or both. Just as the American public has been shielded from seeing the caskets of those killed in Iraq, sports fans rarely see profiles of the beaten
down ex-NFL players whose post-career lives mean pain, hardship and a much shortened life-expectancy.

Nearly all NFL owners are Republicans, and some, like Alex Spanos of the San Diego Chargers, are large donors to the GOP and conservative causes. NFL owners thus get the benefit of taxpayer-supported stadiums, a guaranteed profit, and the ability to use the seemingly apolitical
arena of pro football to spread their political gospel to tens of millions of voters.

Now that progressives have finally gotten it together to create a talk-radio network, the next challenge is to further infiltrate the world of professional sports.

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