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News Outlets Bury Syracuse Accuser's Retraction

You might have missed the news as it crawled across the bottom of the screen Friday or appeared in the Briefs portion of the Saturday sports pages.

The Syracuse Post-Standard reported that Zach Tomaselli, the third individual to accuse Orange assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine of molesting him, admitted he had made up the whole story.

Post-Standard reporter Douglass Dowty spoke with Tomaselli by phone. In audio excerpts of the conversation, posted at Syracuse.com, Tomaselli openly states that he lied about being molested, lied about taking a trip to Pittsburgh with Fine and the team in 2002 when he was 13, and lied about being at an autograph session with the players. In fact, he says he got no closer to the players or coaches than watching Syracuse play Pittsburgh from the nosebleed seats in the Carrier Dome.

Tomaselli was the third person to accuse Fine. Tomaselli's claims surfaced the same day that audiotape of a phone call between the initial accuser, Bobby Davis, and Fine's wife Laurie was released, seeming to some listeners to corroborate Davis' story. Syracuse fired Fine later that day.

Tomaselli also told the Post-Standard that Davis had coached him on how to make his accusation credible - a claim Davis has denied to ESPN. Davis noted that he did talk with Tomaselli and says the younger man was unable to provide details about Fine's house or about the players on the Syracuse team, raising doubts about his story.

A day before confessing his fabrications to the Syracuse paper, Tomaselli was sentenced to 39 months in prison in Maine for sexually abusing a 13-year-old boy in 2009. According to an Associated Press report, he told the sentencing judge he was using drugs when he abused the boy at a summer camp where he was a counselor and that he was angry at the time because he had been sexually abused and his abusers were not brought to justice. The sentence was less than the 12-year term agreed to in Tomaselli's plea bargain.

It is impossible to know what role if any the Tomaselli accusation played in the university's decision. Piled on top of the charges from 39-year-old former ballboy Davis and his 45-year-old stepbrother, Mike Lang, Tomaselli's claim may have caused the administration to fear it had a growing Penn State-like situation on its hands and to take action rather than appear indecisive.

Of the three sets of accusations, only Tomaselli's was recent enough to carry the threat of criminal charges. The statute of limitations had expired for the other two. Tomaselli's report in November led Syracuse police, New York state police and the U.S. Secret Service to obtain a search warrant and spend seven hours going through Fine's home.

The Fine mess was a huge story, promoted to the hilt by ESPN. The network seemed determined to demonstrate its journalistic chops in the wake of the Penn State scandal. That story, less than two weeks earlier, took the network by surprise and raised questions about its willingness to investigate and pursue stories that reflect badly on the people it covers and does business with.

So the scandal surfacing at Syracuse was a godsend for ESPN, and the network went at it full bore, with the TV equivalent of screaming tabloid headlines. Only, as some noted, the Penn State revelations came at the end of a lengthy grand jury process, with indictments no one could ignore. The Syracuse story was only beginning. It was the public disclosure of an individual's accusation, one that had been investigated in the past with no charges brought against Fine by the prosecutor or the university.

It's a truism of journalism that charges run on the front page in giant type, while retractions are printed deep inside.

ESPN is just one of the outlets that owe their viewers and readers - as well as the Fines - an equivalent trumpeting of this latest development.

Where, as former Secretary of Labor Raymond Donovan asked after being acquitted in a federal corruption probe, does a person go to get his reputation back?

Jeff Neuman's columns for RealClearSports appear on Monday and Thursday. Follow him on Twitter @NeumanJeff. His collected golf writing and blogging can be found at www.neumanprose.com.

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