Even if ESPN can reasonably argue that Prince Harry deserves recognition for his work with the Invictus Games, the network and the renegade British royal can’t avoid the suspicion that they are clamoring for attention by walking into a controversy that everyone — except perhaps Harry — saw coming.

By giving Harry the Pat Tillman Award at its annual ESPSYs awards ceremony Thursday night, the network had to know that the choice would invite backlash and even comparisons between the privileged son of King Charles III and the San Jose-reared football star.

Tillman became an American hero by walking away from a lucrative NFL contract with the Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the military after 9/11. The 27-year-old died in a friendly fire incident while serving in Afghanistan in 2004. Harry also did two tours in Afghanistan while serving in the British army from 2005 to 2015, before he returned to royal life.

Pat Tillman, poses in a June 2003 photo, released by Photography Plus. Tillman, a Former Arizona Cardinals football player, was killed at age 27 by friendly fire in a firefight in Spera, Afghanistan as part of the U.S. Army Second Ranger Battalion.(AP Photo/Photography Plus via Williamson Stealth Media Solutions) 

“Prince Harry getting this award has drawn insane eyeballs to this show,” one TV consultant, who works for both ESPN Disney, told The Telegraph. The ESPSYs — which are hosted this year by tennis star Serena Williams, a friend of Harry’s wife, Meghan Markle — will air live on ABC, starting at 8 p.m. Thursday. ABC is owned by Disney, which also owns a controlling interest in ESPN.

“The fact that so many people are talking about Harry and this honor will delight those at the top,” the consultant said.

Maybe it’s just a coincidence that EPSN has been struggling financially, with Disney seeing profits for ESPN, its streaming service ESPN+ and its others sports ventures drop 20% through the first nine months of fiscal 2023, it was reported in October. Subscribers for ESPN+ also declined 2% in the second quarter of 2024, Fast Company reported in April.

“They will stand firm on him getting it and also behind closed doors be excited that such a decision has prompted such interest in this night,” the consultant continued. “Like it or loathe it, Harry draws interest and potentially bigger ratings – so they will keep him there.”

As Tillman’s mother, Mary Tillman, said critically of the choice in a statement to the Daily Mail, Harry has become a “controversial and divisive individual” in both Britain and the United States, since he and Meghan left royal duties in 2020 and moved to her home state of California.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have been accused of using their royal associations to garner headlines and lucrative media deals, which have become high-profile vehicles for them to criticize Harry’s family members. Their critics also believe that the couple use their high-profile philanthropic endeavors, such as the Invictus Games, in part for PR purposes and to gather more honors, such the Pat Tillman Award, which they hope will further burnish their reputations.

Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle arrive at venue prior to car incident, Tuesday, May 16, 2023, in New York. The couple's office says the pair and Meghan's mother were followed by vehicles after leaving a charity event on Tuesday. It said in a statement Wednesday that the pursuit "resulted in multiple near collisions involving other drivers on the road, pedestrians and two NYPD officers." The incident instantly drew comparisons to the 1997 fatal car crash of Harry's mother, Princess Diana. (Andrew via AP)
Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle arrive at venue prior to car incident, Tuesday, May 16, 2023, in New York. The couple’s office says the pair and Meghan’s mother were followed by vehicles after leaving a charity event on Tuesday. It said in a statement Wednesday that the pursuit “resulted in multiple near collisions involving other drivers on the road, pedestrians and two NYPD officers.” The incident instantly drew comparisons to the 1997 fatal car crash of Harry’s mother, Princess Diana. (Andrew via AP) 

“I’m afraid it’s just a clear symbol of his desperate need for attention,” a friend of the royal family told The Daily Beast. “The irony of the whole of the last four years is that Harry and Meghan said they were leaving the royal family so the media would leave them alone,” the royal family friend told The Daily Beast. ‘And now, here Harry is, literally picking up retail awards on live TV. It’s pathetic.”

Harry, an Apache helicopter pilot in Afghanistan, also faced controversy and criticism from British military leaders in January when he picked up “a Living Legends of Aviation” award at a glitzy Beverly Hills ceremony. That honor, too, was called a “pathetic” publicity stunt by Admiral Lord Alan West, Britain’s former Chief of Naval Staff.

The backlash over the Pat Tillman Award has apparently left Harry “upset,” The Daily Beast reported.

“Harry’s legacy on Invictus, the things he has achieved, that’s his real passion,” sources also told The Telegraph. “This is the space in which he truly feels at home, it is something he deeply cares about. The reaction certainly took the shine off the award.”

Harry’s office declined to comment to The Daily Beast, but his camp has supposedly been heartened that former winners of the award, such as U.S. Marine Jake Wood, have praised the idea of giving it to Harry.

“He’s a royal prince, there’s 100 different things he could have done with his life after his service in the British Armed Forces but he’s chosen to dedicate a big portion of his post-military life to helping veterans,” Wood said, The Telegraph reported.

But another ESPN insider, popular sports analyst Pat McAfee, blasted the decision to give Harry the award, saying on his show that the network was clearly trying “to piss people off” — that is, to capitalize on the controversy. McAfee’s co-host Boston Connor said that it was “probably the most embarrassing thing I’ve seen in my entire life” while guest Ty Schmitt called the award to Harry “a gimmick.”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - DECEMBER 06: Meghan, Duchess of Sussex and Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex speak onstage at the 2022 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Ripple of Hope Gala at New York Hilton on December 06, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for 2022 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Ripple of Hope Gala)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – DECEMBER 06: Meghan, Duchess of Sussex and Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex speak onstage at the 2022 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Ripple of Hope Gala at New York Hilton on December 06, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for 2022 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Ripple of Hope Gala) 

The Pat Tillman Award for Service was established in 2014 by ESPN in the football star’s memory to honor individuals who, like Tillman, have made “remarkable civic contributions” and shown “extraordinary fortitude and spirit of service.” ESPN defended its choice to honor Harry with a statement that praised the “incredible” work of the Invictus Games, which supports wounded, injured, and sick servicemen and women through international sporting events.

Harry borrowed the Invictus idea from the Warrior Games in the United States and gained support from The Royal Foundation, the charity he created with his now-estranged brother and sister-in-law, Prince William and Princess Catherine. The inaugural Invictus Games took place in London in 2014 in partnership with the U.K.’s Ministry of Defense.

Now, Harry is the subject of furious debate over whether he meets the criteria for receiving the Pat Tillman Award. Daily Mail columnist Richard Eden wrote that Harry probably was keen to receive this honor because he’s lost the opportunity to receive royal military appointments and honors since quitting royal life. In the absence of receiving British honors, including from his father, King Charles, “Harry has taken to accepting awards in the U.S., his adopted homeland,” Eden wrote.

For her part, Mary Tillman noted that the award typically goes to people who are not household names and said there are recipients who are “far more fitting” because they work in the veteran community but “do not have the money, resources, connections or privilege that Prince Harry has.”

Unfortunately for Mary Tillman, her position also has ignited its own controversy, with online Harry and Meghan fans saying she shouldn’t have a voice on this issue and seizing on statements from ESPN insiders, who told Page Six that the mother is not associated with the Pat Tillman Foundation, which helps the network decide he honorees.

But to other observers, the idea of Harry turning up at the splashy, star-studded ESPYs Thursday night to accept an award speaks to an uncomfortable need for attention.

“If you get a medal in the army, you don’t brag about it, so the idea of turning up at a televised awards ceremony to be honored would be utterly embarrassing to most military people,” a military source who worked with Harry told The Daily Beast. “It’s really sad to see Harry, who was an amazing guy who everyone respected, doing this kind of stuff.”

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