Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Pat Tillman and Values Confusion

Ethics Scoreboard almost fell into the trap: we were this close to putting Pat Tillman, the recently killed St. Louis Cardinals football star-turned-Army Ranger into our “Ethics Hero” section. And he certainly is deserving: Tillman knowingly and voluntarily put himself in harm’s way to fight for his country and his country’s values, which he correctly determined were under attack based on the carnage of September 11, 2001. But the media spin on this story has spoiled it, and now we have to discuss the heroic Tillman for another purpose.

What made Tillman a hero is that he risked his own safety and gave up the normal course of his life for others. It is not, as so many blathering talking heads would have it, that he gave up a multi-million dollar contract and an NFL career. Yet virtually every story about Tillman’s heroism emphasizes his salary, as if his sacrifice were greater because his career was glamorous and lucrative. Increasingly irritating curmudgeon Andy Rooney pursued the same idea in a column a while back, disputing the heroism of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan because for many of them (he wrote) military service was obviously better than the alternative. “During the last few years,” Rooney wrote, “when millions of jobs disappeared, many young people, desperate for some income, enlisted in the Army.” To Rooney, this was proof positive that these soldiers were not heroic, and unworthy of praise.

Ah, but Pat Tillman gave up money. Now that’s heroic, right, Andy?

Look: the value of a human being’s life is not defined by what salary he or she earns, or how often one is featured on Sportscenter. It is no more or less than the fulfilled potential for contributing to the happiness, safety, welfare and stability of one’s family, community, society, nation, and world. People make their choices for all manner of reasons. For Rooney’s “young people,” finances probably played a part. For Tillman, it was partially a search for self-worth and meaning. Unlike the blow-dried pundits who seem to think that an NFL career is the equivalent of Nirvana, Tillman felt that he hadn’t done anything meaningful with his life, at least as powerful a motivator to an ethical person as a lack of career options. We shouldn’t think any less of Tillman because he may have enlisted, in part, to fulfill his own sense of worth, and we shouldn’t minimize the sacrifice of other soldiers who enlisted, in part, to feed their families. In both cases, these individuals also made a choice to risk their lives to pursue a greater value than their own needs and survival.

We celebrate that. Those who now publicly scratch their heads in wonderment and admiration that Pat Tillman could walk away from a multi-million dollar income just to contribute something to his country are lost causes. They are so sated with the trivia of American life that they no longer understand what truly is valuable, and what constitutes sacrifice. It isn’t giving up money. It is giving oneself to a greater good, the ultimate ethical act. Pat Tillman understood this. We insult his memory and American ideals by reducing his heroism to a rejected paycheck.

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