(CN) - Former ball boys who accused an assistant basketball coach at Syracuse University of sexual abuse cannot sue the head coach for calling them liars, an appeals court ruled.
Jerry Sandusky, the longtime assistant football coach at Penn State, had been arrested only one week earlier when ESPN and other outlets reported in November 2011 about the abuse Robert Davis and his stepbrother Michael Lang claimed to have suffered at the hands of assistant Syracuse basketball coach Bernie Fine.
Davis had voiced his abuse allegations years before he faced the media spotlight.
In 2002, he had gone to Syracuse police with his allegations against Fine, and he shared them with the university in 2005.
While the police declined to press charges, the school said an investigation by its lawyers found the allegations unsubstantiated.
The 2011 reports led Syracuse to fire Fine, despite the unflagging support of James Boeheim, who remains as head coach of the Orange.
Boeheim, who is in the Basketball Hall of Fame, worked alongside Fine for 35 years.
He said Davis lied when he claimed that Boeheim saw Davis on Fine's hotel-room bed in New Orleans in 1987. Up until 2004, the Syracuse team had been called the Orangemen.
Boeheim also said that Davis and Lang lied about Fine abusing them, and that their statements were financially motivated in the wake of the Sandusky abuse scandal.
Syracuse.com quoted the had coach as saying, "I know [the plaintiff is] lying about seeing him in his hotel room. That's a lie. If he's going to tell one lie, I'm sure there's a few more of them."
In addition, Boeheim told ESPN.com: "I know this kid, but I never saw him in any rooms or anything. ... It is a bunch of a thousand lies that (the plaintiff) has told.
Boeheim's comments about the allegations against Fine appeared on ESPN.com, syracuse.com and the New York Times.
In December 2011, Davis and Lang sued Boeheim for defamation in Manhattan. The case was apparently 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 on Oct. 4.
The four-page majority opinion notes that, while Boeheim spoke to the media as though he were stating facts rather than protected opinions, his words must be considered in context.
"We conclude that defendant's statements demonstrate his support for Fine, his longtime friend and colleague, and also constitute his reaction to plaintiff's implied allegation, made days after Penn State University fired its long-time football coach [Joe Paterno], that defendant should have known of Fine's alleged improprieties," the unsigned decision states.
Justices Nancy Smith and Eugene Fahey dissented with their colleagues, stating that Boeheim's words were "mixed opinion" and that the court should revive Davis and Lang's suit.
"The complaint sufficiently alleges false, defamatory representations of fact about plaintiffs, i.e., that Davis was lying about Bernie Fine, that Davis had previously tried to obtain money through similar allegations, and that plaintiff and defendant Michael Lang, who the complaint alleges is a relative of Davis, were doing so again through the instant allegations," the dissent states.
ESPN reported this past July that Fine dropped his own defamation claims against the news network.
A separate action filed by Fine's wife against ESPN should be headed to trial next month.
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