Court Considers Reviving Syracuse Defamation Case

     ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) – Former Syracuse University ball boys who say they were defamed when the head coach accused them of lying about sexual abuse urged the New York Court of Appeals to revive their case Tuesday.
     The case is before the state’s highest court after two lower courts voted to dismiss. It asks whether James Boeheim, head coach of the Syracuse Orange, defamed two former ball boys, Robert Davis and his stepbrother Michael Lang, when they accused Boeheim’s assistant coach Bernie Fine of abusing them. Davis and Lang’s allegations made headlines in November 2011, just a week after similar claims led to the arrest of Jerry Sandusky, the longtime assistant football coach at Penn State.
     Boeheim had rushed to the defense of his 35-year assistant – and friend – in interviews with ESPN and other media outlets, calling Fine’s accusers liars who were out for money.
     Davis and Lang, who are now in their 40s, sued Boeheim for defamation in Manhattan. The case was transferred to Onondaga County Supreme Court where it was dismissed in May 2012. A divided five-justice panel of the Appellate Division’s Rochester-based Fourth Judicial Department affirmed last year.
     Pressing the Court of Appeals to revive Davis and Lang’s case, Cuti Hecker Wang attorney Mariann Meier Wang said Boeheim’s assertions in the interviews were made as statements of fact, not opinion, and could be challenged as false.
     Judge Robert Smith wondered whether circumstances would be different if Boeheim had limited his comments to just a defense of Fine, something to the effect of “I know Bernie Fine and he wouldn’t do it.”
     If that was all the coach had said, Wang responded, “We’d have a harder case.”
     Wang told the court that Boeheim “went much further than just sticking up for a friend.”
     Boeheim’s attorney, Helen Cantwell of Debevoise & Plimpton in Manhattan, told the court that the coach spoke both in defense of Fine and of himself.
     With the Penn State scandal still present in the public’s mind, allegations against Fine threatened to paint Boeheim into the same corner as Joe Paterno – a coach who knew about abuse allegations but did nothing about them.
     Boeheim may have used “loose language” in support of Fine, but they were part of “an emotional, defensive reaction” to Davis and Lang’s allegations, Cantwell said.
     Noting that Boeheim gave four interviews over two days, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said the coach’s statements could not be attributed to something “off the top of your head” that “maybe you haven’t thought through.”
     Cantwell tried to downplay that idea by noting that “Jim is known as an emotional guy.”
     “The totality of circumstances would clue a reader in … [that] it’s opinion,” she added.
     Davis and Lang attended the court session, sitting in the public section on either side of celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred of Allred, Maroko & Goldberg in Los Angeles, who is their co-counsel.
     After the hearing, Allred and Wang led a gaggle of reporters outside the courthouse, where they introduced Davis and Lang and allowed them to take a couple of questions.
     Davis thanked the lawyers for their work. “We’re just trying to do the right thing,” he said of the case.
     Allred said the court’s decision, expected this fall, could be important “to all sexual assault victims.”
     Davis originally took his complaint against Fine to the Syracuse police in 2002, but was told the statute of limitations had run out, according to background on the case included in the Supreme Court dismissal.
     He then approached the Syracuse Post Standard and ESPN, but neither outlet published anything about his allegations.
     In 2005, Davis contacted Syracuse University, which launched an investigation that concluded there was no corroborating evidence to take action against Fine.
     ESPN’s 2011 report of Davis and Lang’s allegations led Syracuse University to put Fine on administrative leave and then fire him a few weeks later.
     Boeheim is in his 38th year as head coach of the Orange, which had been called the Orangemen until 2004. The Division I team made it to the NCAA tournament for the sixth consecutive year this year, their 35th total appearance, but lost in the second round.

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