In 1997 Sport Illustrated ran a cover story where they asked the peculiar question “What Happened to the White Athlete?”:
Unsure of his place in a sports world dominated by blacks who are hungrier, harder-working and perhaps physiologically superior, the young white male is dropping out of the athletic mainstream to pursue success elsewhere.
It is a provocative piece and highly controversial, for the rise of Black people in the United States eerily parallels the rise of Black people in sports. Perhaps it is fate that within that issue of Sports Illustrated, a white athlete was profiled that ostensibly answers that rhetorical question perfectly. His name, you might ask? Pat Tillman. At the time a free spirited Arizona State University linebacker and honor student, the profile piece on Tillman depicted a warrior preparing for just another battle to overcome: those who doubted his ability to make the National Football League (NFL). Deemed “too slow” or “too small” to play in the a league dominated by Black athletes, Tillman knew he was capable of being a starter:
Most football players fit into a box. They’re big, fast and strong (duh); they submit to authority without resistance; and if asked to define introspection , they would say it’s what happens when the defense picks off a pass. Those who don’t fit into the box rarely succeed at a major program. Then there is Arizona State senior linebacker Pat Tillman, who not only doesn’t fit into the box but also would have to consult a travel agent to find it… This season Tillman has become simply the best player in the country who doesn’t have his own (fill in the blank: Heisman, Outland, Lombardi, Butkus) campaign, living proof that there is room at the highest level of the game for a guy without much size or blazing speed but with a brain and cojones. “He epitomizes what college football is all about,” says Southern Cal offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, who was an assistant at Arizona State during Tillman’s first two seasons… Predictably, Tillman isn’t ready to retire from football. Just as he was told that Division I-A was beyond him, he is being told that the NFL is out of his reach. When asked how many times he can bench-press the standard 225 pounds, Tillman explodes in laughter. “How many times?” he says. “Like, dude, I max 225, and then I rack it.” You can’t measure or weigh or time guys like Tillman and get the story. “I know he can play in this league,” says Von der Ahe. “Strong safety, linebacker in a nickel package, somewhere. He’s tenacious, he’s smart, he’s got great instincts.” “I’ve told NFL guys, ‘If you don’t want him on your team, don’t take him, because he won’t let you cut him,’ ” adds Snyder. What will Tillman do if he doesn’t make the NFL? “Beats me,” he says, grinning like a man with no fear and, just in case, good grades. Grab a tree and swing in the breeze.
Interestingly, the NFL is a league populated with employees who have spent a surprising amount time in jail and sport impressive criminal resumes, and Tillman was no exception – having spent time in jail before college for defending a friend in a fight during high school – as he had that seemingly necessary qualification for employment in the pro football. Tillman found himself drafted by the Arizona Cardinals with the 226th pick to play the overwhelming Black position of safety. Working hard as a rookie, he started 10 games. By 2001, he was regarded as one of the top safeties in the league:
All this so that a casual observer can glance at my all-pro list and sneer, “Pat Tillman! Who the hell is that? Dr. Z’s going loony on us.” Pat Tillman, my all-pro strong safety from the Arizona Cardinals, is what is known as a chart monster. At the beginning of the grading period, which takes roughly three full days, there’s a dim awareness that he has had some good outings and needs further analysis, and then, stringing together all his numbers, I discover, hello, that he has defeated the competition — by a lot.
In an age of free agency, Pat Tillman found his market value dramatically improve with his performance on the field and was offered an astounding $9 million contract with the St. Louis Rams. However, out of loyalty to the team that picked him 226th in the NFL draft, Tillman stayed a Cardinal. Free agency offers athletes a veritable blank check to shop their services to the highest bidder and Tillman refused to take part in a game where players become interchangeable and decided to remain unfaltering in his dedication to the Cardinals. Mind you, a National Basketball Association (NBA) player – Latrell Sprewell – once put his services on the open market of free agency in hopes of signing a lucrative contract in the ballpark of $14 million so he could “feed his family”:
Latrell Sprewell says he’ll ask to be traded if the Minnesota Timberwolves don’t sign him to a contract extension by Wednesday night’s opener. ”I think this thing is heading towards me leaving, personally,” Sprewell told reporters after a practice this week. Earlier this preseason, Sprewell said he wanted a contract extension by the Wolves’ opener, against the New York Knicks, or he would ask for a sign-and-trade deal or wait to become a free agent. Either way, Sprewell said he didn’t want to negotiate during the season. But he took a tougher stance Sunday. Asked if he would play out the season and test the free-agent market, Sprewell said: ”Why would I want to help them win a title? They’re not doing anything for me. I’m at risk. I have a lot of risk here. I got my family to feed.” Sprewell is due to make $14.6 million this year. Sprewell, 34, described the team’s latest offer, reported to be worth between $27 million and $30 million over three years, as ”insulting.”
Tillman signed a league minimum contract with the Cardinals, maintaining loyalty over money in hopes of perfecting his vocation as a ball-hawking safety for the franchise that gave him his shot. According to a recent book published on Tillman, Where Men Search for Glory: The Pat Tillman Story, he lived modestly choosing to ride a bicycle to work and then purchasing a beat-up car. No bling for Tillman.
In an age when Black people dominate sports, they have a curious inability to save money for the future, and yet Tillman was never plagued by such worries as he lived niggardly. After the horrendous events of 9/11, the United States enjoyed unprecedented levels of national unity, yet Pat Tillman voiced a major concern for the virtual insignificance of his life thus far and the triviality of his chosen profession, which was more of an avocation:
Then tragedy spurred Pat Tillman to his greatest sacrifice. Teammates say the slaughter of 9/11 had a profound effect on him. “Pat has very deep and true convictions,” said Cardinals coach Dave McGinnis. (Usually when coaches say a player has “convictions,” they mean something entirely different.) “He’s a deep thinker,” McGinnis said of him. And Tillman began thinking deeply about family, duty and sacrifice. The day after 9/11, Tillman told a crowded press conference “My great grandfather was at Pearl Harbor, and a lot of my family has…gone and fought in wars, and I really haven’t done a damn thing as far as laying myself on the line like that.” Cardinals defensive coordinator Larry Marmie says Tillman began telling him of his need to “pay something back” for the nation that had allowed a last-choice college football bencher to choose between multi-million dollar deals in the NFL.
In the film Jerry Maguire , Cuba Gooding Jr. plays a Black wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals who famously tells his agent to ‘show him the money’ in his next contract. In real-life, Tillman was offered more than $3 million to stay with the Cardinals after a stellar 2001 season, but he took a $18,000 job with the United States military, attempting to replicate The Greatest Generation and become a Real American Hero. Tillman was motivated by duty and honor, ideals cherished by Pre-Obama America yet displaced and an anachronism in this era, strangely lost on the current of sports stars, as few athletes sign up for military duty:
Former Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman walked away from a lucrative football career to serve in wartime, ultimately giving his life in a military firefight. He was the first pro football player to die in combat in more than three decades — a rarity in the generations that followed World War II. “This particular sacrifice is noteworthy because of its unrepresentative nature,” military historian Peter Karsten said. In World War II, 638 former NFL players served. Nineteen were killed. Since then, athletes in the military have become less and less common. Historians note that some athletes of previous generations had little choice but to serve. Those who weren’t drafted often volunteered to avoid dangerous assignments, they said. The draft had its benefits. It made it possible for athletes who served to avoid backlash from people who were against the wars, since they didn’t have a choice, said Otis Pease, a retired University of Washington history professor who specializes in the United States’ involvement in World War II. Athletes were actually sought by the military during World War II, because they were thought to be more likely to survive plane crashes, said Michael Gelfand, a University of Arizona history professor. Without the draft, athletes are now often reluctant to join the military — especially with the amount of money they have to lose. Cardinals center Pete Kendall commended Tillman for walking away from millions of dollars and a life of relative ease to put his life on the line. “That is one of those things that is easy to say you might do, but Pat, to the best of my knowledge, is about the only one that I know presently in our modern day of athletics that did it,” Kendall said during a news conference Friday. Before Tillman, the last pro football player to die in combat was Bob Kalsu, an offensive tackle for the Buffalo Bills, who served in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division and was killed by North Vietnamese mortar fire. Billy Shaw, a Buffalo Bills hall of fame guard and former teammate of Kalsu, said news reports of Tillman’s death reminded him of Kalsu. “What a tremendous character makeup both of these individuals had to put their careers on hold to defend our country,” Shaw said. “They are the real Hall of Famers.”
Neither a Republican nor a Democrat, Tillman was an American, motivated by a sense of honor this era is woefully devoid of, and emboldened with an insatiable drive for adventure and living life to its fullest. Unselfish and unburdened of an ego, Tillman refused interviews about his decision to leave the fame and fortune of the NFL for the rigors of life in the US Army. Unlike athletes desiring the limelight – Terrell Owens, Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson, Keyshawn Johnson, Reggie Bush and hundreds other come to mind – Tillman wouldn’t allow his decision to enlist cast him as a poster-child for the War on Terror and the Iraq/Afghanistan wars, only because he disallowed such association. Regardless of his personal views on the war, Tillman became a member of the elite Army Rangers. Sadly, the tale of perhaps the ultimate warrior ended tragically as on April 22, 2004, Tillman was gunned down in a horrible incident of fratricide, a casualty of friendly-fire. Oddly, Republicans rallied to defend the tragic sacrifice Tillman made on some God-forsaken rock in Afghanistan. Neither a Democrat nor a Republican, but an American, Tillman would have found the patriotic zeal that accompanied his death superfluous. His death is still shrouded in mystery, but his life remains a paragon of living by a code unencumbered by foolish procrastination and thoughts of “what if?” “Whatever Happened to the White Athlete?” Sports Illustrated asked back in 1997. The answer was found in that very issue, in the life of Pat Tillman. Perhaps we will never know the details surrounding his tragic death, but we do know that few people lived heroically and loyally like Pat Tillman. Like the Brad Pitt character Tristan Ludlow in the film Legends of the Fall, Tillman wore his blonde hair long, and listened to the voices in his head. “Some people live by the inner-voices they hear… some who do this become crazy… or they become legend,” it was said in that film.
Pat Tillman died six years ago on the soil of a nation the United State was at war with and six years later, still are fighting. He wasn’t particularly fond of this engagement, but dutifully served anyways. Before going to war, he married his long-time girl-friend Marie. Like Achilles before him, Tillman was cursed to never have children though his name will be written into history much the same. Still, in his final days on earth his lasting thoughts were on his wife (we are hard-pressed to believe Tiger Woods would feel the same):
On embarking on his three-year Ranger hitch, Tillman wrote, “Not only will the next 3 years make me a stronger person, mentally and physically, I know it will also free up my conscience to enjoy what I have. My hope is that I will feel satisfied with my accomplishment… enough to relax and just be. Be with Marie.”
The cover-up surrounding Pat Tillman’s death is shameful. More shameful is the state of professional athletics and the squalid individuals who selfishly perform for millions, forsaking honor and glory. Black athletes routinely go bankrupt upon leaving their respective sport or even go bankrupt whilst still engaged in their vocation. Sports Illustrated asked the question of “What Happened to the White Athlete?” Well, an athlete they profiled in that very issue answers that question in a way no study, use of statistics or thesis paper could hope to provide:
One day, God willing, Russell Baer was going to tell his son this story. One day, after the boy’s heart and brain had healed, he was going to point to that picture on the kid’s bedroom shelf of the man doing a handstand on the roof of a house, take a deep breath and say, Mav, that’s a man who lived a life as pure and died a death as muddy as any man ever to walk this rock, and I was there for both. That’s the man, when your heart stopped for an hour and they slit you open neck to navel, who I prayed to because … well, because you wouldn’t exist if he hadn’t died, and I wouldn’t be half of who I am if he hadn’t taught me how to live. That’s Pat Tillman, the man you take your middle name from, and I’ve been waiting for you to ask since the day you were born.
We at Stuff Black People Don’t Like ask now “What Happened to the Black Athlete?” and ESPN supplies the answer:
What does graffiti on a storefront have to do with being black, and what does any of this have to do with sports?
On the surface, everything.
At this point, anyone who still believes black culture, sports and violence are three topics existing in separate vacuums probably still listens to cassettes. The truth is, sometime between Melvin Van Peebles’ “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” and Jay-Z’s “The Black Album,” the image of the black athlete went from being a symbol to rally around to a figure to take cover from, and that’s not just because the mainstream media is reporting negative stories. It’s also because a significant number of black athletes and celebrities are doing negative things, such as mimicking contrived images created in the early 1990s to market a mutilated form of hip-hop to eager, misinformed suburbanites.
Although the Gilbert Arenas and Marvin Harrison headlines are hardly significant enough to paint an entire group of people with a broad “thug” brush — as many critics of the NBA, in which more than 75 percent of the athletes are black, tend to do — these stories can’t be categorized as anomalies. The black athlete is at a major crossroads, as is the black community, and we can no longer afford to keep the dirty laundry in the hamper because while we’re busy trying to save face, our kids continue to die in our streets. I don’t mean to exclude white teammates from the discussion, but there once was a time in which members of the black community more readily kept each other in check.
The Michael Oher story pulls at the heart strings of white people who feel every down-trodden young Black person can only be uplifted through the gracious love of a white family. The Pat Tillman story shows what happened to the white athlete, shaming the majority Black NFL and NBA for their combined inadequacies.
Stuff Black People Don’t Like includes the Pat Tillman Story. No more explanation why is necessary