By: George Garneau
New York-area sports columnists exchange barbs over
coverage of Seton Hall University’s original decision
to offer basketball scholarship to an accused sex offender sp.
JOURNALISTIC FEUDING erupted between New York-area sports columnists over coverage of Seton Hall University’s decision to offer a basketball scholarship to an accused sex offender.
Seton Hall, the Catholic university based in suburban South Orange, N.J., eventually withdrew the offer ? but not until 10 days after New York high school star Richie Parker had pleaded guilty to a sex felony, and three days after press criticism sparked a public controversy.
In the journalistic fracas, sports columnists exchanged potshots ? cheap shots, to some ? in print. Two New Jersey sports columnists made disparaging references to the New York media. New York Post sports columnist Phil Mushnick took umbrage and accused colleagues across the Hudson River of playing hometown booster for Seton Hall.
The rift erupted after Mushnick penned a scathing attack on Seton Hall for keeping Parker’s scholarship offer open ? even after he had pleaded guilty. Mushnick, who read in the Hackensack, N.J.-based Record of Parker’s plea and of Seton Hall’s continued interest in him, joined the press opposition begun by New York Daily News sports columnist Ian O’Connor.
Parker, an 18-year-old, six-foot-five guard, whose average 25 points a game ranked him among the nation’s top recruiting prospects, signed a letter of intent Nov. 14 to attend Seton Hall on full scholarship ? even though he was already facing two sodomy counts in connection with a January 1994 incident in which he and another male student were accused of forcing a 14-year-old girl to perform oral sex on them in a school stairway.
Seton Hall acted on the theories that (1) the accused are innocent until proven guilty, and, (2) if it didn’t sign him, another school would. The scholarship, worth about $19,000 a year, was contingent on Parker’s scoring at least 700 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, which he had failed to do.
Parker pleaded guilty Jan. 13 to first-degree sexual abuse, a felony but less serious than the original two sodomy counts, as part of a deal expected to net him five years’ probation at a scheduled March 1 sentencing.
The victim’s parents reportedly agreed to the pact to spare her the anguish of a trial.
It wasn’t until the next week that the press found out. John Roe broke the plea story in the Record Jan. 18 and quoted Seton Hall basketball coach George Blaney as saying: “I don’t think it changes anything. We still think he’s a good kid, and he’s somebody we want. We’re hoping everything works out, academically and otherwise.”
The idea of a Catholic university offering a full sports scholarship to a confessed sex offender inspired Mushnick to unusual outrage, even for him. He poured it onto a tabloid page headlined “A Seton Hall of Shame,” a column blasting Seton Hall for “doing anything ? absolutely anything ? to win basketball games.”
By all rights, said the columnist, who is raising two young daughters, Seton Hall chancellor Rev. Thomas R. Peterson owed an explanation to the father of Parker’s victim and the father of every female Seton Hall student “as to why the school is eager to allow an academically unsound sex felon to freely walk ? and walk for free ? in their daughters’ company.” Mushnick portrayed the affair as another example of commercialism undermining the principles of college athletics to the point that talented male athletes are now “so overly indulged that the lessons of right from wrong are far more likely to be waived.”
Everybody else may have to earn a second chance, he wrote, but top basketball and football players “don’t have to earn anything. Division I colleges will extend as many chances as needed ? until your eligibility expires.” In contrast, he asked, Where does Parker’s victim get a second chance?
Mushnick also quoted Parker’s lawyer as saying Seton Hall officials knew when they signed the athlete that he planned to plead guilty.
For days after Mushnick’s piece ran Jan. 20, debate raged on sports pages and over the airwaves on local talk-radio station WFAN. Some callers and columnists said it was unfair to deny Parker a chance to redeem himself in college and questioned for how long he should be punished.
Then, on Jan. 23, Seton Hall bowed to the pressure and at a press conference rejected Parker “for the common good and integrity” of the school, according to chancellor Peterson.
Then the sniping began. Asbury Park Press columnist Bill Handleman, who days earlier had criticized Seton Hall for compromising itself by signing the accused Parker in the first place, blamed the school for buckling to “outside pressures.” Handleman quoted Bob Brennan, a prominent local banker and Seton Hall regent, as blaming a “lynch-mob mentality” for scuttling Parker’s recruitment.
Because Seton Hall waited 10 days after Parker pleaded guilty and three days after the New York media “stumbled” on the story, Handleman said, “it looks as if the university was hounded into this decision at the first hint of middle-class outrage. The kind of outrage that the more sensational media outlets feed off hungrily.”
His Jan. 24 column also referred to coach George Blaney as a man “who may well be the most honorable coach in America.”
At the press conference a day before, Blaney said Parker “is paying a lot more than he should. I’m really sorry for him. I’m really saddened by this. I just hope he can get on with his life in a positive way.”
Tom Luicci of the Star-Ledger also weighed in with a backhand at the media. He said Seton Hall “apparently” bases its admissions decisions “on the rantings of the New York media.”
He, too, blasted the school for the hypocrisy of signing the accused Parker, maintaining the offer after he pleaded guilty, and then “yielding to media pressure” after “some New York media types took Seton Hall to task.”
In keeping with New York journalism tradition, Mushnick took offense and struck back. In a Jan. 25 column, he charged, “The New York Post, the New York Daily News and WFAN did the job that Seton Hall long ago abandoned, and Seton Hall’s friendly, professional media long ago showed little stomach for.
“These are the frightened champs who will note for their readers that all the bad stuff happens out of town . . . . But every once in a while, they’re forced to acknowledge what they ignored while it unfolded on their watch.”
Mushnick accused Luicci of remaining silent in the week and a half after Parker’s plea and questioned how the Press avoided “stumbling” on the story. Moreover, he blamed the Jersey papers for allowing Seton Hall basketball “to become so compromised that no compromise seemed too great.
“It was the media ? especially the media closest to Seton Hall ? that for years has gutlessly indulged, ignored, apologized, defended, celebrated and otherwise extended a free pass in the face of the unholiness that Seton Hall has allowed to persist in the name of beating other Big East ‘college’ programs at basketball,” Mushnick wrote.
In an interview, Mushnick said he reacted to what he thought were “cheap shots.”
Luicci insisted in an interview that his barbs at the New York media were aimed not at Mushnick but at WFAN, which reported unsubstantiated claims.
“Maybe I should have made that more clear,” Luicci said. “I had no problem with Phil Mushnick’s column. I thought he was absolutely justified. That was a misunderstanding on Phil’s part. If Phil had bothered to call me, I would have told him.”
Ironically, Mushnick and Luicci are neighbors in the New Jersey town of Old Bridge.
Luicci admitted he missed a few beats on the Parker plea bargain, but defended his coverage before and after, starting when he reported Seton Hall had signed the accused Parker in November. By the time Parker pleaded guilty in January, Luicci said he, Mushnick and others were “asleep at the switch . . . . Once it came off, I didn’t back off about it.”
Mushnick’s assertion that the Star Ledger has been less than aggressive in covering Seton Hall is “true in some respects,” Luicci said, explaining that under the paper’s previous executive editor and sports editor, “when it came to controversial issues, we had a benign approach to things.
“Nobody discouraged me from pursuing stories,” but stories of crime and drugs in sports were assigned to the news department, added Luicci, a 16-year Ledger veteran.
Under editor Jim Willse and sports editor Pete Wevurski, the paper has taken a more aggressive tack on sports, he said.
Asbury Park Press sports editor John Quinn, recently hired from Newsday, said he personally fought Parker’s elevation to Newsday’s all-city team and told the Press staff to keep on eye on the case.
“We missed it like everybody else missed it,” Quinn said of Parker’s plea. He credited the Record’s Roe and the Post’s Mushnick for their coverage of the situation.
Quinn denied playing booster to local sports programs, however, saying, “We certainly have not been soft on Seton Hall and we are not soft on anybody.”
?(Barb tossing following New York Post columnist Phil Muschnick’s “A Seton Hall of Shame.” Subsequent Post coverage of high school basketball standout Richie Parker’s ill-fated Seton Hall scholarship added fuel to the journalistic fire.) [Photo & Caption]
?(The rift erupted after New York Post sports columnist Phil Mushnick penned a scathing attack on Seton Hall for keeping Parker’s scholarship offer open-even after the youth had pleaded guilty to a sex offense.) [Photo & Caption}
?( Asbury Park Pres sports editor John Quinn denied playing booster to local sports programs, saying, “We certainly have not been soft on Seton Hall, and we are not soft on anybody.” The front page above shows how the Press played the news that Seton Hall had rejected Parker, two months after signing a letter of intent to give him a sports shcolarship.) [Photo & Caption]