Journalistic Feuding Erupts; 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

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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. …