Pat Tillman becomes partisan symbol in NFL conflict

In this Dec. 20, 1998, file photo, Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman celebrates after tackling New Orleans Saints running back Lamar Smith. –Roy Dabner / AP, File

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For the many people who believe that NFL players who kneel during the national anthem are disrespecting U.S. armed forces, Pat Tillman was a perfect symbol.

But Marie Tillman, who was married to Tillman when he left a lucrative contract with the Arizona Cardinals to join the Army, has asked the hundreds of people invoking him in the debate over the players’ kneeling to stop “politicizing” his memory.

That group included President Donald Trump, who Monday retweeted an account praising the memory of the Cardinals’ star, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2004, and calling for a boycott of the NFL.


It was just one of many dozens of tweets over the weekend that contrasted Pat Tillman’s service with the demonstrations during the national anthem, which started as a way for players to call attention to racial injustice. For those who viewed the gesture as spoiled or self-absorbed, Tillman represented an antithesis.

By the time Trump added his voice, the pushback had already begun, as people pointed out that Tillman was a less-than-convenient symbol for pride in the armed forces. After he was killed in Afghanistan in 2004, the Army initially said that Afghan militants had been responsible. It took nearly five weeks for the Tillman family to find out that he had been fatally shot by Army Rangers.

After Trump’s retweet, many also pointed out that the former football player had been a critic of the war in Iraq and of President George W. Bush. Tillman was an intellectually curious, independent thinker interested in World War II and the works of left-wing professor Noam Chomsky.

On Monday, Marie Tillman, who rarely speaks publicly, said that her husband deserved to be remembered as a symbol of unity.

His service, she told CNN, “should never be politicized in a way that divides us. We are too great of a country for that.”


“The very action of self expression and the freedom to speak from one’s heart — no matter those views — is what Pat and so many other Americans have given their lives for. Even if they didn’t always agree with those views,” she said. “It is my sincere hope that our leaders both understand and learn from the lessons of Pat’s life and death, and also those of so many other brave Americans.”

The transformation of multidimensional men and women into one-dimensional symbols is not an internet-era phenomenon. But social media, with its emphasis on the visual and symbolic and an often limited word count, has accelerated the process by which a person comes to represent a single idea.

And while other athletes are now able to use social media to push back, speaking for themselves on Twitter, Instagram and elsewhere, Pat Tillman cannot.

Jon Krakauer, who wrote about Tillman’s life in his 2009 book, “Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman,” was astonished by the soldier’s depth.

“I thought he was probably an interesting story, but I had no idea how interesting and complicated he was until Marie confronted me with his journals,” he told The New York Times in an interview about the book. “He was so different from the way he had been publicized.”