Toronto Maple Leafs Head Coach Randy Carlyle Gives Press ConferenceSomething happened when the Toronto Maple Leafs hired Brian Burke on November 29, 2008, that went beyond the change in organizational philosophy that typically accompanies a new front-office regime in professional sports. Burke, whose abilities to articulate are well matched with his impulse to express himself, became the fabled face of the franchise.

The face of the franchise. It’s a funny phrase that’s probably more frequently used by sports talk radio shows than anyone with anything to do with a professional team, but it suggests that fans are prone to assigning someone from the ranks with the role as the representative of the entire club. This isn’t usually a conscious decision, and it’s exceedingly rare for a fan base to anoint a general manager with such a potentially hazardous oil. We’re far more likely to pick a player – someone on the field, court or rink of play – as the person through whom we live out our sports-based fantasies.

However, Burke’s justified extroverted tendencies combined with an exceedingly engaged group of supporters and a roster that – let’s be honest – didn’t have a lot of players with whom fans would naturally choose to identify, placed the head of the Maple Leafs front office in a position which few professional sports executives find themselves. Even after making notable acquisitions to that roster, it was largely thought of as Burke’s team. Even as fans mocked terms like truculence, there was an implicit understanding that Burke was the figurehead most closely identified with the organization that they supported through so many years in the wilderness.

After four more, even as a version of the promised land appeared on the horizon, Burke’s status as president, general manager and face of the franchise ceased to be.

It all seemed so strange. Shortly after hockey fans in Toronto learned that there would indeed be an NHL season in 2013 – following a labor dispute that had caused many to question the possibility – they also learned the season would commence without Burke at the helm. Through the previous four months of work stoppage, Burke had represented the Maple Leafs in the negotiation of a new collective bargaining agreement between players and owners, and almost immediately after that agreement was reached, he was dismissed by the team.

Following a manicured press conference hosted by Burke, and the media friendly explanations of ownership – who used so many words to say so very little – fans were left to interpret the flickering of shadows in a cave as a means of understanding why the representative would represent no more. Such conditions proved fertile for the growth of urban legends, and in a small amount of time, outrageous rumors as to “the real reason” why Burke was fired were prevalent.

Marital infidelity. Refusals to cede autonomy. Alcohol abuse. Coming into work on the Monday after Burke’s firing, there was almost a giddiness involved in relaying the rumors that office mates had heard. The dark humor had little to do with the obvious inaccuracy of the allegations and a whole lot more to do with the idea that somewhere someone was spinning ridiculous yarns about a very public figure.

The laughing stopped a few months later when Burke filed a lawsuit with the British Columbia Supreme Court, alleging defamation against 18 pseudonymous defendants who made online accusations that an extra-marital affair with a sports reporter led to his dismissal. Burke’s notice of claim asserts that the comments published by these individuals are untrue, specifically mentioning one pertaining to a sexual relationship with Rogers Sportsnet reporter Hazel Mae. According to Burke’s statement, the internet postings suggested that Mae was pregnant, and that the “lucky dad” was Burke.

The rumors represent the awful immaturity and misogyny of sports fans on multiple levels. Their result: An intelligent executive is shoved off a pedestal through immoral and supposedly self-aggrandized behavior, while a prominent female sports reporter is reduced to being the concubine of a powerful male. To run through the list of the accused – which includes Ncognito, Slobberface and Sir Psycho Sexy – it becomes easy to convict the rumor’s propagators of wrongdoing en masse. However, the human beings attached to the unfortunate handles deserve the space for some nuance in our judgment.

For instance, Zack Bradley – or THEzbrad, as he’s named in the suit – is a 20-year-old Carleton University journalism student from Oshawa, Ontario, who posted the following on his personal blog after reading about the story on internet message boards.

Rumours are that the woman is Hazel Mae, sports anchor for Roger’s Sportsnet Connected, although none of this is certain (just rumours!).

This quotation isn’t used in the suit, what is used in the claim of notice is an especially libelous four sentence rant from only one of the defendants. It’s not clear what the 17 other defendants wrote to earn inclusion in the suit.

Nonetheless, Burke’s legal team won a key battle on Tuesday when they received permission from the B.C. Supreme Court to serve notice to the seven defendants that have yet to be identified – the other 11 have either already been identified or are not easily tracked down – via the message boards they used to spread their alleged defamation. They will be served legal papers through a direct message.

This is the solution Burke’s lawyers have come to after administrators of the message boards and websites – where the comments in question were originally published – denied requests to identify the defendants. Many of these original posts and threads have since been deleted, with many of the original authors remaining inactive once word of the suit began to spread.

It’s an important victory for Burke because it forces the unknown accused into something of a catch-22. If the seven who are to be notified by direct message through the websites that they used to make their claims wish to remain unknown, they risk being identified later and penalized through a default judgment without any defence. If they want a chance to fight the lawsuit, they will have to identify themselves and risk a verdict in Burke’s favor.

For sports fans, it feels as though there’s a defining moment around the corner. First of all, this has never happened before. No one from the sports world has ever gone after internet detractors in the manner with which Burke is proceeding. He’s not ignoring it. He’s not letting it roll of his back. He’s attacking the people who have attacked him, even if those attacks are varied in vitriol from less than powerful sources.

The defendants in the civil case do represent a sadly common element of sports fans who depend on technology for information and expression without the necessary filter between these two uses. With technological advances giving us increased access to sports news, our vicarious relationship to sports has extended to areas beyond the actual team playing games and into the front office. This allows us to make a figure like Brian Burke the face of a franchise. We’re increasingly aware of what he does and how he does it, making his successful trades our successful trades, and his failing free agent signings our failing free agent signings.

As long as this is contained to sports we’re typically comfortable. Fans are just as likely to criticize the best player on their favorite team, as they are the general manager of their team. Just as technological advances have allowed us to expand our relationship to sports, it’s also allowed us expand the platform from which we can offer our opinions on sports.

Again, as long as we remain in the realm of sports with all of this, it’s fine. If you want to write a blog entry or a message board post degrading a player, manager or front office, it’s all well and good. As long as you refrain from personal attacks, it’s typically a good thing for the sport and the team – no matter how harsh your take.

Unfortunately, we all have access to both information and platforms. The access is indiscriminate to our abilities to comprehend what is fair game and what is personal. It’s all possible. And this is what happened with the line-crossers in this case who decided it was all right to share untruthful information online. Reading through an interview with one of the accused, it’s not difficult to conclude that what’s lacking in maliciousness as a motivating factor is more than made up for in simply not understanding the impact of one’s words.

There’s a basic lack of comprehension for the power of the source that’s being used to express their opinions. The irony is found in their use of that very same source to inform the opinions that they express. Burke is pursuing the teaching of one of the harshest lessons ever taught, and it’s likely for the best that many of us are able to audit this course from afar rather than be a direct student.