If Colin Kaepernick and his activism had come along 12 years earlier, the unemployed quarterback could easily have found himself kneeling on NFL sidelines during the playing of the national anthem to protest the 2004 death of former NFL star and Army Ranger Pat Tillman. Instead, Tillman’s legacy is being used by people who don’t understand it to shame both Kaepernick for challenging the establishment, and Nike for highlighting Kaepernick’s cause in its new advertising.
Tillman was killed by American soldiers while serving in Afghanistan. And the military went to great lengths to hide it.
In 2016, Kaepernick, then the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, began staying seated during the national anthem to protest the killing of unarmed black men by police officers. A few weeks later, he switched to kneeling after a former Seattle Seahawks player and Green Beret convinced Kaepernick it was the best way to protest while showing respect for the armed forces.
Controversy has swirled around Kaepernick since, with President Donald Trump attacking him and others who knelt with name-calling tweet storms. Kaepernick is suing the NFL, claiming owners colluded in refusing to sign him last year.
But Kaepernick has support, too. He was GQ magazine’s 2017 citizen of the year. And this week, Nike introduced an ad campaign to celebrate the 30th anniversary of its “Just Do It!” slogan with a picture of Kaepernick and the text “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
That message is a misstep. “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing something,” would be better. Kaepernick has not sacrificed everything. He has not endangered himself or given away all his money or turned to fighting injustice full time. Kaepernick is no saint, and saying “sacrifice everything” is a thoughtless misstep along with his wearing of socks depicting police officers as pigs and a T-shirt picturing Che Guevara.
But the response from Kaepernick detractors, a doctored version of the ad that replaces Kaepernick with Tillman, does not sell the idea that America is so great none can protest it. It does the opposite.
Tillman gave up stardom with the Arizona Cardinals and joined the Army Rangers after 9/11, making him a poster boy for sacrifice and patriotism. He did a tour in Iraq, and according to his family and fellow soldiers, concluded it was a hopeless, pointless and illegal war. Then in 2004, Tillman was sent to Afghanistan to help hunt Osama bin Laden, the mission for which he’d joined.
Soon after he arrived, Tillman was killed in a barrage of gunfire by his own men, who mistook him for the enemy. The Army said he’d been killed by the enemy, and told Tillman’s fellow soldiers to lie. Those fellow soldiers burned Tillman’s uniform and body armor, destroying evidence. And the military used the fake story of Tillman’s death at enemy hands as a recruitment tool, only admitting to the lies when a stateside coroner discovered Tillman was gunned down by American bullets.
There’s a lot that a reasonable patriot could protest in Tillman’s story. There’s the nation’s unjustified war in Iraq. There’s its fixation on Afghanistan when it was Saudi Arabia that gave us bin Laden and 15 of the 19 airline hijackers. But most of all, there’s a soldier killed by his own men, and a government lying about it to advance its own agenda.
If Colin Kaepernick ever gets another job in the NFL, he should take a knee during the national anthem. And he should do so to honor Pat Tillman and his family, victims of an imperfect government whose moral failures it is every American’s job to fight.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.