SYRACUSE, N.Y. – A judge hearing arguments on a motion to dismiss a defamation lawsuit against Syracuse University and men's basketball coach Jim Boeheim said Friday that he expects to announce a decision in two weeks.
Former team ballboys Bobby Davis and Mike Lang claim that Boeheim slandered them when he said they were out for money by accusing assistant coach Bernie 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. He 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.
Lawyers for the coach and university say Davis and Lang are distorting Boeheim's statements by taking them out of context. They argue the comments were not statements of fact but were opinion tinged with hyperbole, sarcasm and rhetoric, and therefore protected under law.
"What coach Boeheim was doing was simply offering his opinion about their motivations and claims as opposed to making a specific factual allegation," defense attorney Helen Cantwell said in court Friday. "The basis of his opinion was his longstanding relationship with Fine. We submit that the coach has a right to defend himself by entering into the ongoing public debate. I think he has the right to offer his opinion, rightly or wrongly."
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.
Davis, 40, and Lang, 45, hired high-profile attorney Gloria Allred and filed the lawsuit in late December. All three were in court Friday. Boeheim didn't attend the hourlong session.
Mariann Wang, a lawyer for Davis and Lang, disputed Cantwell's claims and called the dismissal motion "completely baseless."
"You can't manipulate the facts and you can't state false facts," Wang said. "The fact that it (the abuse) happened a while ago ... doesn't mean it's not provable fact."
Supreme Court Justice Brian DeJoseph, a graduate of Syracuse University and its law school, questioned both attorneys on Friday.
"Does he (Boeheim) get a free pass because of his reputation for being a blunt speaker?" he asked Cantwell.
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. Although Tomaselli has since admitted he was lying, there has been no announcement about the status of that investigation.
Fine, 66, hasn't been charged and has denied all wrongdoing. He was hired this week 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.