A college newspaper columnist who wrote that NFL player and Army Ranger Pat Tillman "got what was coming to him" when he was killed in Afghanistan triggered a furor at the University of Massachusetts yesterday, drawing hundreds of angry responses from across the country and a scathing statement from Jack M. Wilson, new president of the University of Massachusetts.
Writing in the UMass-Amherst Daily Collegian, graduate student Rene Gonzalez, called Tillman "a `GI Joe' guy who got what was coming to him."
Tillman, who gave up a $3.6 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the Army after Sept. 11, was killed in a firefight in eastern Afghanistan last week.
"That was not heroism; it was prophetic idiocy," Gonzalez wrote. His piece, which ran on Wednesday, was paired with a second column praising Tillman's heroism.
As word spread about the column, calls and e-mail began to pour in from around the country. By midday yesterday the Daily Collegian's website, which carried a link to the column, had received at least 1,300 postings and finally crashed, said editor Jennifer Eastwood.
Eastwood estimated that 98 percent of the people were expressing outrage against Gonzalez or against the newspaper for running the piece. She had taken calls from members of the military and from students as far away as Georgia and Mississippi.
Gonzalez's column condemned the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and portrayed Tillman as a dupe, "probably acting out his nationalist-patriotic fantasies forged in years of exposure to Clint Eastwood and Rambo movies."
The controversy roused Wilson, named president of the UMass system a month ago. Wilson issued a statement yesterday recognizing Gonzalez's right to free speech, but called his comments "a disgusting, arrogant, and intellectually immature attack on a human being who died in service to his country."
Wilson called on Gonzalez to apologize to Tillman's family and friends. Gonzalez did not reply to phone and e-mail messages yesterday.
In an interview, Wilson said that he wanted to exercise his own right of free speech, to make sure no one mistakes Gonzalez's views for those of the majority of students.
"I feel this is a great university and a great campus, and we've got a great chancellor out there and great students, and I didn't want the world to think this expression was representative of the University of Massachusetts," he said.
The student government association issued its own statement, calling on Gonzalez to resign from his campus job as an advisor to minority students. He is getting his doctorate in political science, said the student government president, Jared Nokes, who knows Gonzalez.
Nokes called the column's message hateful and criticized the newspaper for running it. "They had plenty of other editorials to choose from," he said. "Rene had a right to say it, but the Collegian didn't have to print it."
In addition to the column that supported Tillman that ran alongside Gonzalez's, the Collegian ran a number of angry letters today.
Editors are standing by their decision. In a statement published yesterday, the editorial board described part of the paper's mission: "to create discussion, with dialogue on the merits of each argument."
"We cannot . . . compromise the mission of our publication for the sake of ensuring the constant happiness of our readership," they wrote.
In response to the column, the student Republican club is planning to start a petition asking for Gonzalez's resignation, Nokes said. They are also organizing a vigil to honor Tillman.
Professors reached yesterday expressed their distaste for the column as well. English professor John Nelson arrived at UMass in 1967 and served as a draft counselor during the Vietnam War. He remembers passionate demonstrations that burned Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara or Secretary of State Dean Rusk in effigy, but said that Gonzalez's comments were more troubling.
"I never remember anyone talking about a soldier's death in these terms during Vietnam," Nelson said.
Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.