‘Patriotism pay’ recalls true patriot

By Ron Leir

So the National Football League is giving back the $720,000 it got from the U.S. Defense Department it was supposed to use for military recruitment efforts.

Whether NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was being sincere or politically practical when he sent a letter of apology to Arizona GOP Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain, is immaterial.

The point is that the NFL got the message: taxpayer money shouldn’t be used to “pay for patriotism” by staging spectacles at NFL-sponsored public events.

Better to have applied the money to advance studies on the impacts of concussions on NFL players and how to better design helmets to withstand the crushing blows they absorb in every game. (Of course, that’s assuming those studies are well-intended.)

It’s interesting that the two Arizona lawmakers jumped on this issue because – while I’m unclear whether economics was the sole motivating factor – it was a standout Grand Canyon State scholar-athlete named Pat Tillman who gave up a promising NFL career to join the Army in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

A member of the College Football Hall of Fame who was named the Sporting News Honda Scholar-Athlete of the Year in 1997, Tillman – who was drafted and played as a safety for the Arizona Cardinals – joined his brother Kevin – a major league baseball prospect – in abandoning sports and bigtime money to fight for their country in 2002.

After his first deployment to Iraq in 2003, the Tillman brothers entered Army Ranger School later that year and graduated in November 2003. Pat Tillman was subsequently redeployed to Afghanistan.

On April 22, 2004, Tillman and an Afghan militia soldier were reported killed by enemy combatants during an enemy ambush near the Pakistan border.

But after a lengthy investigation by the Army, it was determined that both deaths were the result of “friendly fire.”

As noted by Wikipedia, although senior Army commanders were made aware of the real cause of death during the investigation, they remained silent and posthumously awarded Tillman the Silver Star and other decorations as a war hero for having been killed “in the line of devastating enemy fire.”

As part of a cover-up effort, later reported by Army brass, members of Tillman’s Army unit burned his body armor and uniform – along with Tillman’s personal notebook – to try to destroy any evidence of what had really happened. Several Army Rangers were later removed from the unit as punishment for their actions.

It wasn’t until March 2007 that the Pentagon revealed the truth in an official report.

That was too little and too late from the Tillman family.

In testimony to the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Kevin Tillman said: “The deception surrounding this case was an insult to the family; but more importantly, its primary purpose was to deceive a whole nation. We say these things with disappointment and sadness for our country. Once again, we have been used as props in a Pentagon public relations exercise.”

Maybe this haunting episode in the Defense Department’s history echoed in the minds of Flake and McCain and spurred them to take action against the powerful NFL.

At any rate, in 2004 the NFL donated $250,000 to the United Service Organizations to build a USO center in memory of Tillman and the Pat Tillman USO Center – the first of its kind in Afghanistan – was dedicated at Bagram Air Base on April 1, 2005.


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