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The NFL Still Isn’t Done Exploiting Pat Tillman

Pat Tillman's memorial service
Arizona Cardinals/Gene Lower, pool

You go into any Super Bowl pregame ceremony knowing that you're going to have to choke down a near-lethal dose of patriotism and military propaganda before being allowed to finally watch some damn football, because that's just the way things work. But even that hard-earned knowledge can't totally deaden the revulsion felt at seeing the league exploit Pat Tillman, once again, 19 years after his death.

Super Bowl 57's final bit of pregame pomp belonged to a set of honorary captains, all of whom were recipients of scholarships from the Pat Tillman Foundation. Before the group of Tillman Scholars was honored on the field, fans in the stadium and at home were shown a video package, narrated by Kevin Costner, in which Tillman was was presented as nothing more than a patriot and hero for giving up his NFL career to join the United States military after 9/11.

This kind of thing has been happening in NFL stadiums and on NFL broadcasts for nearly two decades now, and each instance is more offensive than the last. Yes, Tillman was partially moved to joining the military by 9/11, but he also refused to let himself be used as a propaganda tool by the Bush administration after enlisting. Tillman also described the United States' invasion of Iraq as "all bullshit," and had planned to meet with anti-war intellectual Noam Chomsky after his tour of duty. Tillman was killed by friendly fire while deployed in Afghanistan in 2004—shot three times in the head by his fellow soldiers—and afterwards the military concocted a completely false story about how Tillman died while heroically charging up a hill. Tillman's body armor and journal were burned by his platoon mates within three days of his death; those same soldiers were told not to talk publicly about what had really happened; Tillman's family has repeatedly expressed anger at how his death was turned into pro-war propaganda.

Every piece of information in the previous paragraph has been common knowledge for years now, and various versions of it have been written countless times since Tillman was killed. The NFL doesn't give a shit about any of that, though, because the league will never untangle itself from the U.S. military's propaganda machine. To do so would be to surrender the idea that watching NFL football is an act of patriotism unto itself. Tillman, a literal manifestation of the idea that football players are troops, will always be uniquely useful to the league in its quest to maintain its status as an American institution.

That's how you end up seeing his face on the jumbotron before the biggest game of the season, almost 20 years after he died, despite what everyone knows to be true about his death. One might hope that shame or the simple passage of time would eventually compel the NFL to stop exploiting Tillman's legacy in this specific way, but today's invocation was another reminder of how unlikely that is to happen. No amount of information about who Tillman was, what he really believed, and how he really died are enough to trump everything the NFL gains from pairing images of him in his NFL and military uniforms.

I'm sure the Tillman Scholars who stood at midfield before kickoff today are nice people, but their presence at Super Bowl 57 only served one purpose: to propagandize on behalf of one institution that killed Pat Tillman, and another that has never passed up an opportunity to dishonor him.

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