When the news hit social media that Nike is endorsing Colin Kaepernick, there was the typical social media response: Overwhelming support and its polar opposite, complete with dissenters ruining articles of their own clothing. One of the more popular memes was of stark contrast to Nike’s original message. In the Nike-created version, Kaepernick, a black man, is prominently featured in a close-up of his face with the words, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” This, of course, alludes to Kaepernick’s protest during the playing of the national anthem before the start of NFL games, which resulted in an alleged blackballing from the league. This is not a space where I’m going to debate my thoughts on that.
In defying Nike, social media users have begun overlaying the words that appeared in the ad over a picture of Pat Tillman, the former NFL player who quit the league in order to join the Army Rangers after the events of September 11th, 2001. Tillman was killed by fratricide, or friendly-fire, in 2004.
The message this meme sends is that Tillman, who lost his life, sacrificed more than Kaepernick, who sacrificed his livelihood. In this, there’s a bit of truth. Tillman made, in a way of clichéd speak, the ultimate sacrifice.
But those who’ve read about Tillman life, for instance, in Jon Krakauer’s book Where Men Win Glory, or have watched the documentary The Tillman Story, know a different angle to this. Tillman referred to the war in which he was serving as “so fucking illegal.” He was critical of the war, the people leading it, and the underprepared people who were fighting it.
All the while, he was used as war propaganda. He was made the poster boy for patriotism, a role he would have hated. When he died, again by the hands of his own platoon, the government did their best to cover it up. They did so as long as they could to ensure that what the public saw was a sacrifice by a great patriot, not the shitty death partially orchestrated by bureaucratic mismanagement. The powers that be saw it as an opportunity to drum up support for the war. This is not some conspiracy theory. This is all sworn testimony. The army burned his journals and his clothes. His platoon mates were ordered not to tell the truth.
A recommendation to award Tillman with a Silver Star medal, one of the U.S. military’s highest honors, immediately began moving through the Army ranks — something that is not done for deaths by friendly fire, Krakauer says.
And, says Krakauer, “when a soldier is killed in combat, you should put his uniform, his weapon, everything — anything that can be considered forensic evidence should be sent back to the States with the body, so the medical examiners could determine the cause of death. In the case of Tillman, none of that happened.”
Tillman’s uniform and body armor were burned, says Krakauer, and his weapon, helmet, even a part of his brain, which fell to the ground after the attack, disappeared. Army officials told the medical examiners that Tillman had been killed by the Taliban — and they stuck by this story when they reported the death to his family.
Tillman is too complicated a person to decide how he would have felt upon returning home from war, had that been the outcome. Anything I give would be absolute conjecture. I don’t know if he would have stood or knelt for the anthem. I don’t know what kind of support or dissent he would have given Kaepernick. I do have a feeling that the people posting this meme would be at odds his politics, but, again, conjecture. I won’t claim to know.
Knowing what I do know, though, about his refusal to take part in any press when he joined the military or when he was imbedded with his squad, I’m pretty sure he would’ve hated that stupid fucking meme for no other reason than how dare anyone presume to speak for him.