SYRACUSE, N.Y. — A judge on Friday threw out a defamation lawsuit brought against Syracuse University and men’s basketball coach Jim Boeheim by two men who said the Hall of Fame coach slandered them when he said their accusations of sexual abuse against former associate head coach Bernie Fine were driven by greed.
Two former team ball boys, Bobby Davis and Michael Lang, accused Fine of sexually abusing them more than 20 years ago.
When the allegations surfaced in November, Boeheim vehemently supported Fine, a friend for more than 40 years and his assistant for 35-plus seasons. Boeheim told ESPN that Davis was telling “a bunch of a thousand lies” and called him an opportunist looking to cash in on the publicity surrounding the Penn State sex-abuse scandal.
Supreme Court Justice Brian DeJoseph, a graduate of Syracuse University and its law school, ruled Friday that Boeheim’s comments were not statements of fact but were opinions that are protected from defamation suits.
“The content, tone and purpose of Boeheim’s statements would clearly signal to the reasonable reader that what was being said in the articles published in the days after the initial ESPN report were likely to be an opinion — a biased, passionate, and defensive point of view of a basketball coach — rather than objective fact,” DeJoseph wrote in his 30-page decision. “It is clear to this court that Boeheim provided a factual basis for his opinion. He provided a … reasonably accurate version of those facts.”
Davis, 40, and Lang, 45, hired high-profile attorney Gloria Allred and filed the lawsuit in late December. Late Friday, Allred vowed to appeal the ruling
“When Bobby Davis came forward years ago and complained about sexual abuse he was ignored,” Allred said in an email statement. “When the allegations were made public he was attacked. It is difficult enough for victims of childhood sexual abuse to come forward. This decision sends the message that you can attack the alleged victim and call him a liar with impunity. It makes it even harder for victims to come forward.”
A call seeking comment from Davis was not immediately returned.
“We are gratified by the court’s decision dismissing this lawsuit,” university spokesman Kevin Quinn said.
Boeheim, who was out of town attending meetings in Indianapolis, declined to comment through the university’s sports information office. A call to his attorney, Timothy Murphy, was not immediately returned.
Victims advocates reacted angrily to Boeheim’s initial comments and called for him to resign or be fired. He apologized twice within a week of Fine’s firing on Nov. 27, saying he was wrong to question the motives of the accusers. He said he based his initial comments on a 2005 university investigation that failed to corroborate Davis’ claims.
The claims by Davis and his stepbrother happened too long ago to be investigated because the statute of limitations has expired. The U.S. attorney’s office began an investigation after a third man, 23-year-old Zachary Tomaselli of Lewiston, Maine, came forward and said he had been abused by Fine. Tomaselli has since admitted he was lying and been jailed on his own sexual abuse conviction. There has been no announcement about the status of that investigation.
Fine, 66, hasn’t been charged and has denied wrongdoing. He was hired two weeks ago as a U.S.-based consultant for a team in the Israeli Basketball Super League.
The lawsuit was originally filed in New York City because Davis and Lang didn’t believe they could get a fair trial given Boeheim’s high standing in the Syracuse community. But DeJoseph said the two men didn’t provide sufficient proof that jurors here would be biased.