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Syracuse coach cleared in defamation suit by former ball boys

By Victoria Cavaliere

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A New York appeals court has thrown out a defamation lawsuit against Syracuse University and the head coach of its men's basketball team, Jim Boeheim, brought by two former ball boys who accused an assistant coach of molesting them during the 1980s and 1990s.

In the lawsuit, Bobby Davis and his stepbrother Mike Lang accused Boeheim of defamation for publicly calling them liars who were only out for money after they came forward in November 2011 with allegations they were sexually abused as juveniles by former assistant Syracuse basketball coach Bernie Fine.

Davis and Lang came forward publicly with their allegations against Fine, 67, just days after a separate molestation scandal enveloped the Penn State football team and Jerry Sandusky, a long-time assistant coach.

At the time, Boeheim, who had coached alongside Fine for 35 years, vigorously defended his colleague, telling national sports network ESPN "there is only one side to this story. He (Davis) is lying."

Boeheim also told the Syracuse Post-Standard "The Penn State thing came out and the kid behind this is trying to get money. He's tried before. And now he's trying again."

Davis and Lang, represented by celebrity attorney Gloria Allred, sued Boeheim and Syracuse University for defamation in December 2011. A court in Onondaga County, New York, dismissed the lawsuit in May 2012, saying Boeheim's statements had been based in opinion and were demonstrating his support for Fine, a long-time friend.

The men appealed, and on October 4, a five-justice panel of the Appellate Division of New York Supreme Court upheld the dismissal, saying "the court properly determined that defendant's statements constitute opinion, not fact."

Mariann Wang, an attorney for Davis and Lang, told Reuters in an email on Thursday they planned an appeal to New York's highest court, the Court of Appeals.

"We are of course disappointed by the court's ruling, and continue to believe that Jim Boeheim's destructive statements branding Bobby Davis and Michael Lang liars and distorting other facts were defamatory," she said.

Boeheim could not be immediately reached for comment.

Davis, now 40, reported the alleged abuse to Syracuse police in 2002 and to the university in 2005, but no charges were ever brought against Fine, who has maintained his innocence. An investigation into the 20-year-old case could not be reopened in 2011 because the statute of limitations had run out.

Fine was never criminally charged in the case and has denied the allegations.

He was fired by Syracuse University in late November 2011 after a 10-year-old voice recording of his wife surfaced that suggested she was aware her husband might have behaved inappropriately.

Shortly after Fine's dismissal, Boeheim said he accepted the university's decision and regretted that some of his statements in the press might have been "insensitive to victims of abuse."

Separate allegations against Fine were made by a third accuser, Zach Tomaselli, 23, who has since said he fabricated his tale of being molested as a boy during an away game in Pittsburgh.

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

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