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.

Comments (23)

  1. I don’t understand this. For commenters who created the rumour I get it, but for someone like Zack Bradley, what did he do wrong? He saw a rumour on the Internet and relayed it to everyone who reads his blog…kind of like what every blogger does whenever they hear about a rumour?

    • I think it’s one thing to relay a rumor about sports news, and quite another to relay a rumor about someone’s personal life. So, while there was certainly no malicious intent from THEzbrad, there was an eagerness to promote a disparaging rumor for his own benefit.

      • True, but not every rumour relayed by bloggers is just about sports news. As a simple example, should John Tortorella sue everybody who made jackass comments about him today on twitter? I think there’s a very fine line with something like this, and I don’t think Bradley crossed it.

  2. I’m really disappointed in the lack of “Maybe if he was as good at lawyering as general managing this wouldn’t have happened.”

  3. I understand where Burke is coming from but this sets a super dangerous precedent. I typically avoid comment sections like the plague but if he’s successful in suing people for anonymously slandering him on the internet, that’s going to open a can of worms that I’d really prefer to keep closed.

    I don’t often comment on the personal lives of sports personalities because I’m really not interested in that type of thing but if, say, Gregg Zaun could sue me for tweeting a number of disparaging things about him over the years, that would fucking suck. Right? I’m all for accountability but to what degree?

    • I really think the important line is found between criticizing someone’s job – even if it’s harshly – and making claims about a person’s life. He’s a shitty GM vs. he’s a shitty person is an incredibly important distinction, especially when you provide false evidence to say how shitty he is.

      • I completely agree that on a moral level it’s a very different thing, but on a legal level I’m not really ready to support this, because I think there’s also a big difference between the Toronto Star running a front page headline saying “Burke Cheated” vs. some shithead fourteen-year-old running his mouth on a message board somewhere in a back corner of the internet.

        Again, I’m 100% in agreement that making false accusations against Burke and his personal life is totally inappropriate and unacceptable behaviour, and in this case given the publicity it got, I can’t blame him for wanting to take legal action. But if he’s successful, then where do we draw the line? If some idiot in the DJF comments section says something like “LOL Parkes eats shit”, he’s an idiot, but do you have the right to sue him for that?

  4. All of this really makes me want to write something libelous about Brian Burke…

  5. As over-the-top as it may be for a high profile sports executive/lawyer to file a suit against a group of internet commenters spewing rumoured slander, I love that Burke is holding them accountable for their actions.
    It’s just a drip in the ocean, but maybe it will actually make (some) people think before they gain keyboard-courage and realize that self-believed internet anonymity doesn’t give them the right to say whatever they want “just because”.

  6. In my opinion, if an email shows up in my inbox, involving 2 famous people and I want to talk about it on a message board, it shouldn’t be a problem. These people are being sued for copying and pasting a chain email, that they didn’t author, for discussion. From the notes I’ve seen, most of them even said they didn’t believe it

    • Exactly. I think my biggest problem with this is that there’s no differentiation between the people who maliciously and intentionally started the rumour in the first place, vs. the people who were just talking about something they read.

      If THOSE people end up getting into trouble, then does that mean we are no longer able to even mention or repeat anything we read unless we have irrefutable evidence that it’s true? I mean, the one guy referenced in this article even explicitly stated that it was just an unsubstantiated rumour. If he’s still held liable even after including that caveat, then that’s ridiculous.

      • The difference in malicious intent and non-malicious intent is those with the latter having a very useful defence as to their duty, social, moral, or legal, to pass along the information.

      • I think it’s important to remember that it is Burke’s claim that doesn’t distinguish between the originator of the “rumour” and those that have passed it along. The Judie’s decision may very well make a distinction between the two, time may tell.

  7. Just because this is a relatively new defamation suit in the, Canadian sports context, doesn’t mean that Burke is treading new legal waters. This type of suit, while certainly not common place, happens and there is significant writings on defamation suits in general.

    The biggest issue Burke will likely face, is proving that a reasonable person reading the comments would believe them to be true, and Burke’s reputation would be lowered in their minds. Even if he can prove this, he would have to then prove damages. In order to receive anything beyond a declaration he was right and nominal damages, he would have to prove that, as a result of the defamation he suffered actual losses. Is he going to find an owner to say that he would have hired Burke but for the rumours, doubtful. Who knows.

    • Where else has a judge ever ruled it was okay for a plaintiff to serve notice to defendants via the direct message function of online message boards?

      • It happens, it just isn’t written about. Service by way of a message on Facebook is rather common. Otherwise, the fall back is publication in a newspaper. Who reads newspapers?

  8. If this is some small way stops some of the misogyny on the net, go Burke. I was totally sick when I heard this rumour. What the hell did Hazel Mae have to do with any of this? Besides being a visible female?

    • Hazel was looking beat up as hell. Every man in Canada was probably wondering wtf was going on with her. Not saying it’s very nice but who ever authored the email connected two very obvious occurrences of FAMOUS PEOPLE

  9. misogyny? uh okaaaaaay……

  10. Might be interesting to compare what gets said on live radio in the UK:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2013/jun/03/bbc-apologises-clare-balding-lesbian-cure

    Over there the rule seems to be ‘say what you like, as long as it’s [trying to be] funny’. It doesn’t matter how vicious, scurrilous, or personal and attack is, so long as there’s an attempt for it to be ‘satirical’.

    Claire Balding is to the UK what Ron MacLean is to Canada, but her failure to be heterosexual, or to abide by the normal rules of what women should look like on TV (stick thin, long hair), have resulted in it being declared open season on her to pretty much say what you like.

    The psychology behind the involvement of Hazel Mae in this untrue rumour would be interesting to examine, and I’d be willing to be she has suffered far worse personal attacks on the internet than Burke over the years. To be female in the sports profession is still a dangerous business.

  11. Good for Burke. People should get lives and stop being cowards by talking about others behind their backs on the internet.

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