Prince Harry’s ESPN award is ‘exceptionally bad publicity’ for royal: expert

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Prince Harry is said to be “stunned” over the backlash he’s facing as he prepares to receive an award named in honor of a fallen soldier and promising NFL player.

ESPN previously announced that the Duke of Sussex would be this year’s recipient of the esteemed Pat Tillman Award for Service at the 2024 ESPY Awards, which takes place on Thursday in Los Angeles.

British royals expert Hilary Fordwich told Fox News Digital that Harry should have graciously declined the award in response to the controversy.


Prince Harry is this year’s recipient of the esteemed Pat Tillman Award. (Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images)

“His refusal to turn down the Pat Tillman Award, despite suffering a furious backlash with the petition urging ESPN to reconsider its decision… tangibly shows how his popularity has plummeted,” Fordwich claimed.

“The latest to lash out at him is Admiral Lord Alan West, Former Royal Navy Chief and Labour peer, saying that ‘he ought to think very hard and long’ about accepting this particular award as it ‘doesn’t travel well with people in the military,’” said Fordwich. “… He further added to ‘sit back and not accept awards like this.’”

“This entire debacle points to Harry’s lack of experience and understanding of the commercial sector, the… world he has chosen to operate in,” Fordwich continued. “ESPN wants to honor Harry not for what he has done, since many others have done and accomplished more, per [Tillman’s mother] Mary Tillman, but because it generates huge publicity for them whilst harming Harry with exceptionally bad publicity.”

Prince Harry smiling in military gear.

Prince Harry mans a 50 mm machine gun aimed at Taliban fighters on January 2, 2008, in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. (John Stillwell – POOL/Anwar Hussein Collection/WireImage/Getty Images)

But not everyone agrees.

“It’s rare that I find myself coming to Prince Harry’s defense these days, but in this instance, I have to,” Christopher Andersen, author of “The King,” told Fox News Digital. “It’s not Harry’s fault that he was offered the Pat Tillman Award. What was he supposed to do? Turn it down? How tacky would that have been?”

The younger son of King Charles III, who served in the British Army for 10 years, is being recognized for his work with the Invictus Games, an international sporting event for wounded service men and women. The 39-year-old launched the international event in 2014, one year before stepping down from active duty.


Prince Harry has his arm up in a navy suit next to Meghan Markle in a green tube dress

Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex attend the closing ceremony of the Invictus Games Düsseldorf 2023 at Merkur Spiel-Arena on September 16, 2023, in Duesseldorf, Germany. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation)

“Harry obviously considered it a great honor and given what he has done for wounded veterans through his Invictus Games, the Duke of Sussex certainly seemed a logical choice,” said Andersen.

“Harry is so proud of his military service and Invictus that it’s no wonder he is stunned by the backlash,” Andersen continued. “First his grandmother, the late Queen Elizabeth II, strips him of all his ceremonial military titles and uniforms, and now this. Harry is used to being raked over the coals, but this is a genuine heartbreak for him.”

Fox News Digital reached out to a spokesperson for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex for comment.

Prince Harry saluting in military gear.

Prince Harry salutes for a Remembrance Sunday service at Kandahar Airfield on November 9, 2014, in Kandahar, Afghanistan. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

It is understood that Harry has no plans to turn down the award. The Telegraph previously reported that Harry was “stunned” by the heat he faced, and it was “a bitter pill to swallow.”

“Harry’s legacy on Invictus, the things he has achieved, that’s his real passion,” a source told the outlet. “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.”

The announcement first raised eyebrows when Mary Tillman, the late hero’s mother, claimed she was never consulted about the decision to award Harry with the prestigious honor.


Mary Tillman looking serious at a U.S. house committee.

Mary Tillman, mother of Pat Tillman who was killed in Afghanistan by friendly fire, listens as her other son, Kevin Tillman, testifies before a U.S. House committee on Tuesday, April 24, 2007, in Washington, D.C., about the Department of Defense’s handling of the case. (Pete Souza/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

“I am shocked as to why they would select such a controversial and divisive individual to receive the award,” the matriarch told the UK’s DailyMail.

“There are recipients that are far more fitting,” she said. “There are individuals working in the veteran community that are doing tremendous things to assist veterans.”

Mary noted that ESPN should have chosen someone who has never been in the spotlight and highlighted their heroic efforts.

Pat Tillman marching in uniform.

Specialist Pat Tillman, right, a former Arizona Cardinal, walks next to Captain Christoper Deale, company commander of B Company 1st BN 19th Infantry Regiment, during graduation ceremonies on October 25, 2002, at Fort Benning, Georgia. Tillman was killed in action in Afghanistan. (Getty Images)

“I have said all that I will say on this matter,” Mary told Fox News Digital.

The Pat Tillman Foundation, which Mary is not associated with, has been selecting recipients since the award was established in 2014. Mary has never been consulted or privy to recipients in the past.

ESPN analyst Pat McAfee accused his network of “trying to piss people off” for picking the royal.


Prince Harry looking serious in a light blue shirt against a black background.

Prince Harry, who served in the British Army for 10 years, is being recognized for his work with the Invictus Games, an international sporting event for wounded service men and women. He launched the international event in 2014, one year before stepping down from active duty. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Global Citizen VAX LIVE)

“It’s going to Prince Harry, who I don’t even think is a prince anymore, right?” said McAfee on his talk show, as quoted by the New York Post. “He said don’t call me that? See, why does the ESPYs do this s–t?”

Tillman became a hero to many when he walked away from a lucrative NFL contract and a newlywed bride to join the Army after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. His death in the mountains of Afghanistan in 2004 — later revealed to be by friendly fire — struck even more of a chord. He was 27.


“There has been a fierce backlash against Harry getting the Pat Tillman award,” royal expert Richard Fitzwilliams told Fox News Digital. “The Invictus Games, which help wounded military personnel, both serving and veterans, which he created a decade ago, is given as the reason for the award.”

Pat Tillman in NFL gear kneeling on the field.

Arizona Cardinals defensive back Pat Tillman smiles during the pregame. He died in 2004 at age 27. (Gene Lower/Getty Images)

“It is indeed a remarkable achievement. However, the Pat Tillman Award is for service, and Harry, despite a decade in the military and two tours of duty in Afghanistan, showed no sense of true service in the way he, with Meghan Markle, stepped down from royal duties, monetized his royal connections and trashed his family publicly.”

“The Sussexes conducted a kind of guerrilla war against the monarchy, which cast a shadow over Queen Elizabeth’s final years,” Fitzwilliams claimed. “… Nearly 70,000 have signed a petition criticizing him receiving this award, which makes it highly controversial. The way he has behaved reflects on his character, which is, according to many, unsuitable.”

Andersen said it’s easy to see why ESPN chose to honor Harry this year.


Prince Harry in military gear holding a gun.

Prince Harry on patrol through the deserted town of Garmisir close to FOB Delhi (forward operating base), where he was posted on January 2, 2008, in Helmand province, Southern Afghanistan. ( John Stillwell – POOL/ Tim Graham Picture Library/Getty Images)

“By choosing Prince Harry, I’m sure ESPN felt to some degree that it was elevating the award,” Andersen explained. “People are failing to see the big picture here. How many more millions of people now know about the Pat Tillman Award precisely because it’s being given to Harry?”

“There was a similar uproar in January when Harry was inducted into the ‘Living Legends of Aviation’ Hall of Fame because of his service as a helicopter pilot in Afghanistan,” Andersen pointed out. “But this is not the same thing. Harry may not be a ‘Living Legend of Aviation,’ but he certainly has earned his stripes as an advocate for severely wounded service people.”

A spokesperson for ESPN told Fox News Digital: “ESPN, with the support of the Tillman Foundation, is honoring Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, specifically for the work of The Invictus Games Foundation as it celebrates its 10th year promoting healing through the power of sport for military service members and veterans around the world.” 

Jake Wood smiling holding his award in a blue blazer and white shirt.

Honoree Jake Wood accepts the Pat Tillman Award for Service onstage during The 2018 ESPYs at Microsoft Theater on July 18, 2018, in Los Angeles.  (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

“While we understand not everyone will agree with all honorees selected for any award, The Invictus Games Foundation does incredible work and ESPN believes this is a cause worth celebrating.”

Jake Wood, a U.S. Marine who won the award in 2018, told TMZ that Harry is a “natural fit” for the honor because of his military background and work with veterans.

Air Force Master Sgt. Israel Del Toro Jr., who won the award in 2017, also told the outlet that Harry is worthy of the honor.


Israel Del Toro holding his award in a black suit and tie.

Air Force Technical Sgt. Israel Del Toro accepts the Pat Tillman Award for Service onstage at The 2017 ESPYs at Microsoft Theater on July 12, 2017, in Los Angeles. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Royal expert Ian Pelham Turner noted that the blowback Harry has faced seems unfair given his history.

“Harry should receive the award,” Pelham Turner told Fox News Digital. “He is a proven soldier with a distinguished war record in Afghanistan and has fought tirelessly for veterans to be supported and valued.”

“If [Mary] Tillman is not fully aware of his great public service to veterans, she should be made aware and apologize for the stress she has created,” he claimed. “The problem really stems from the… negative whispers constantly defaming his virtues and values… I hope Harry continues with his great veteran service, and he eventually has real awards of medals on his chest – similar to King Charles.”

Prince Harry in a black suit with medals standing next to Meghan Markle in a white coat dress with a matching hat.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex stepped back as senior royals in 2020. They live in California. (Matt Dunham – WPA Pool/Getty Images)

“There’s no way of telling how much this newest controversy is hurting the reputation of the Invictus Games themselves,” Andersen chimed. “There have been calls from some veterans in the UK for Harry to step down from the Games, claiming they have become ‘too royal.’ That simply won’t happen. Invictus is Harry’s baby – period.”

The Duke of Sussex has had a troubled relationship with the royal family since he quit royal duties in 2020 and moved to California with his wife. According to the couple, the unbearable intrusions and racist attitudes of the British media prompted the move.

Fox News Digital’s Caroline Thayer and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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